How strange to celebrate someone for not being who we were programmed to be. But American entertainment worked hard on the shape Cicely Tyson didn’t want to fit. What we’ve really welcomed over the decades has been historical defiance. She died Thursday at the age of 96, a week after the release of Just as I Am, a juicy, honest, passionate Cicely memory. (“Well, child, I tell you, my mouth fell open like a broken paperback.”) And on the first few pages is the truth about why she was the way she was as an actress.
“My art had to both reflect time and drive it forward,” she writes. “I was determined to do whatever I can to change the narrative about black people – to change the way black women in particular were perceived by reflecting our dignity.” Tyson took this vow in 1972, several years after the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., at the beginning of so-called blaxploitation filmmaking, which she did not meet. No hookers, no servants, no big bad mommies. Which meant that a woman dependent on an industry training her clients to overlook a beauty as unique and angular and walnut brown as hers had essentially called a hunger strike.
Unfortunately, she wouldn’t play the most daring characters out there. And let’s be honest: the big parts were always aimed at someone who was whiter anyway. The bolder step was declaring yourself a moral ancestor and walking with your head held high so Denzel Washington could become a man on fire and Viola Davis could learn how to get away with murder.
Tyson had a remarkable physical presence, someone who shaped as much as was born. Her body was supple dancer. She looked delicate. But only “seemed”. She was sensitive like a steel band holds part of a bridge. The deceptive nature of their delicacy was right there in the name. Cicely Tyson. Posture and punch.
Her mouth consisted of an overbite, protruding front teeth, and two full lips. The words she spoke brought an extra breath with them, which in turn gave her an eternal lightness that made us bend over to her so we wouldn’t miss the truth she was trying to say. She didn’t write the scripts, but she never seemed to waste a word. As? And how she spoke: with the learned diction that smells of both old showbiz and old Harlem. No black woman had ever done this reliably with so much elegance and confidence. Of course, no one had asked a black woman to do such a thing since the white horse was what it was. (Diahann Carroll appeared to be her dignified sister.)
Tyson was a strange kind of celebrity. I was never told of their importance. I just knew. Everyone knew That woman was someone. She looked holy and revered – at 29, 36, 49 and 60. Even in fear. It is possible that this will happen if you played a 110-year-old formerly enslaved woman in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, and after you played Kunta Kinte’s mother. Or maybe these roles happen because you exude dignity.
She could act with her whole head but hardly move it. That’s it in most of “sounders” that get stuck in their silence. “Sounder” itself is a calm 1972 film from the Depression era about Louisiana sharecroppers Nathan and Rebecca Morgan, their three children and the family dog Sounder. It’s foolishly lit. The night scenes are brightened up by lanterns, which wouldn’t be my first choice for a movie with so much brown skin. Tyson spends a few scenes under a large straw hat that hides half her face.
For many actors, this would be death because they are too vain to stand up for it or because they lack what it takes to overcome this kind of darkness. For this type of actor, everything is in the eyes. During the four decades of watching this woman at work, I found that her technique seldom relied on her eyes, even though they could glitter and dance. Tyson was a different kind of actor: a life force. It radiated and radiated: Pain, warmth, joy, distrust, fear, skin, love – an ocean of love.
CICELY TYSON WAS known to all people. But in black houses, Tyson embodied the “familiar name”. A lamp that is more than a star, regardless of the type of light source. A natural resource, a wonder, a script, a dream, a beacon. What other actor worked with such clear intention, vocation and seriousness on the one hand and with a devastating smile on the other? Tyson knew what she was. An honorary Oscar, three Emmys, a bunch of Emmy nominations, and a Tony came up to her. Just as fitting for a woman who wanted to play a role, there were eight NAACP Image Awards.
One of these was for playing Marva Collins on “The Marva Collins Story,” a pat but ultimately amazing Hallmark Hall of Fame production that CBS aired in 1981. Collins taught at a Chicago public school that film becomes a zoo anywhere except in her classroom. It’s the epitome of Tyson. The bureaucracy and low expectations of the school system inspire Collins to open a private school in the upper unit of her home. When a white teacher calls her almost humble, Marva treats her with a deathly look and says, “I dress like I do, Miss Denny, because I happen to believe my children deserve a positive image.” Tyson is easygoing and charming and sharp; married to a carpenter, played by Morgan Freeman; romantic, funny, unshakable and – thank goodness – well lit, the teacher of the parents’ dreams, the actor this country needed in more slam-dunk roles like this one.
Consider the roles she could have played had the films been fairer. Think what we would say now if their standards were lower. How’s that for fairness?
I often felt that Tyson was holding onto something, perhaps himself, which in turn forced us to hold onto her tighter. In “Sounder”, after a judge sentenced Nathan to a year of hard work, the film cuts to Rebecca, who is sitting in the back of the courtyard and is surrounded by her children and two friends. Instead of moaning, she just looks on solemnly, one hand supporting her head. Of course she is devastated; The marriage is strong. But in that moment you see Tyson showing determination and strategy. She knows that now she has to do the farming – the sharing – herself. The moment hits you harder for anything Tyson doesn’t do. Posture, blow.
She seldom collapsed. She never cracked. She held it together so the rest of us wouldn’t fall apart. “Marva Collins” was as close as Tyson had ever gotten it. And even then, she lost it for her people. There were other exceptions. The scene in “Sounder” in which Nathan, fresh out of this labor camp, hobbles into the street while she runs a 100-yard shot at him, tears flying from her face, her arms torn open. This is not a way of running a hyphen. Instead, she invented a run that wasn’t powered by muscles, but by heart. This sprint is placed on the national register of major American film recordings. And how about if old Miss Jane drinks this drink at the “only white” fountain? You can show that to a Martian and he would wipe his mouth water.
Tyson knew her place. It was in our movie palaces and living rooms, but also on the kitchen and dining tables of the black families, a symbol of their race, a ship through which an entire grotesque entertainment story no longer passed because it had been pent up; so that she – in her loveliness, grace, righteousness and determination – could dare to forge an alternative. She walked with her head up, chest outstretched, and shoulders hunched back as if she was carrying quite a burden that she never seemed to mind because she knew she was carrying us.