Cicely Tyson | In Memorium

by Tim Gordon

It is said that “when a Griot dies it is like an entire library is burning to the ground.” The news of the death of acclaimed actress Cicely Tyson feels like there is suddenly a huge hole in the history of the cinematic space.

Possessing the grace, style, and longevity, Tyson’s seven-decade career was marked by several notable performances where she brought both fictional and real-life individuals’ stories to the public consciousness.

Born to West Indian parents in the midst of the Harlem renaissance, Tyson initially made her mark as a fashion model, and from the early 1950s through the 1960s, she appeared on television, theater, and film in a bevy of history-making roles, including becoming the first African American to star in a television drama when she starred in the celebrated series East Side/West Side in 1963.

She also was in the original cast of French playwright Jean Genet’s The Blacks. She played the role of Stephanie Virtue Secret-Rose Diop; other notable cast members included Maya Angelou, James Earl Jones, Godfrey Cambridge, Louis Gossett Jr, and Charles Gordone. The show was the longest-running off-Broadway non-musical of the decade, running for 1,408 performances

But the next decade would find Tyson starring in a series of career-defining roles that would cement her name in movie lore. As the matriarch of the Morgan family, Tyson’s empathetic yet powerful performance in Sounder earned her a Best Actress Academy Award and Golden Globe nomination. Two years later, Tyson starred in the television adaptation of celebrated author Ernest Gaines, Jr.’s story, The Autobiography of Jane Pittman. In the film, Tyson, a black woman who has lived 110 years, who has been both a slave and a witness to the black militancy of the 1960s. The role won Tyson a Best Actress Emmy and the adoration of film audiences then and for future generations, as well.

Additionally, Tyson’s acclaimed television roles include Binta in the 1977 miniseries Roots, for which she was nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress – Miniseries or a Movie; Coretta Scott King in the 1978 miniseries King, for which she was nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress – Miniseries or a Movie; Marva Collins in the 1981 television film The Marva Collins Story, for which she received an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Actress in a Television Movie, Mini-Series or Dramatic Special and was nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress – Miniseries or a Movie, and Muriel in the 1986 television film Samaritan: The Mitch Snyder Story, for which she received an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Actress in a Television Movie, Mini-Series or Dramatic Special.

Other notable film roles include the dramas Friend, Green Tomatoes, Hoodlum, and Diary of a Mad Black Woman, and the television films Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, for which she received her third Emmy Award) and A Lesson Before Dying. In 2010, Tyson appeared in Why Did I Get Married Too? and played Constantine Jefferson, a maid in Jackson, Mississippi, in the critically acclaimed period drama The Help. Set in the backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement, the film won the Black Reel Awards for Outstanding Film, as well as Broadcast Film Critics Association Award for Best Acting Ensemble and the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture.

Tyson won the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play for her performance as Miss Carrie Watts in The Trip to Bountiful. Upon winning she became the oldest recipient of the Best Actress Tony Award. Since 2014, Tyson had guest-starred in How to Get Away with Murder as Ophelia Harkness, the mother of the main character Annalise Keating (Viola Davis); for this role, she was nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series in 2015, 2017, 2018, 2019, and 2020. In 2020. Her final film was Tyler Perry’s movie, A Fall From Grace.

Tyson was the recipient of three Primetime Emmy Awards, four Black Reel Awards, one Screen Actors Guild Award, one Tony Award, an honorary Academy Award, and a Peabody Award. In addition, she was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame and received an Honorary Black Reel Award.

She also made headlines for her love life regarding her long courtship with famed jazz trumpeter Miles Davis. the two first began dating in the 1960s when he was in the process of divorcing dancer Frances Davis. Davis used a photo of Tyson for his 1967 album, Sorcerer. Davis told the press in 1967 that he intended to marry Tyson in March 1968 after his divorce was finalized, but he married singer Betty Davis that September. Tyson and Davis rekindled their relationship in 1978. They were married on November 26, 1981, in a ceremony conducted by Atlanta mayor Andrew Young at the home of actor Bill Cosby.

Their marriage was tumultuous due to Davis’ volatile temper and infidelity. Davis credited Tyson with saving his life and helping him overcome his cocaine addiction. Tyson filed for divorce in 1988. Their divorce was finalized in 1989, two years before Davis died in 1991.

While I never had the pleasure to meet Ms. Tyson, her passing leaves a crater-sized void in not just how we see us but in how she helped us see ourselves. Born into a very different world than the one she left, Tyson was blessed to experience the impact of her work and how the torch was passed to future generations, including many who gave her the opportunity to work in their projects in her later years. Her early performances inspired a wave of Black filmmakers who continue to build on Tyson’s iconic life showing her that her lasting legacy was the representation that she championed which will continue to live on long after this towering cinematic griot life has ended

It’s been said that “So long as they speak your name, you shall never die.” Ms. Cicely Tyson, while you are gone from us in the physical space, your spirit will continue to live on in all of our hearts.