Cicely Tyson: How the Award-Winning Actress Used the Stage and Screen to Blaze a Trail for Black Entertainers
Cicely Tyson, seen here in a shot from a Zoomer photo shoot conducted just days after turning 96 last December, used Hollywood as a platform to change the perception of Black people — particularly women — by taking roles reflecting their dignity and strength. Photo: Gabor Jurina
Zoomer magazine contributor Ashante Infantry interviewed Cicely Tyson over Zoom on Dec. 21 — two days after the trailblazing actress celebrated her 96th birthday — for a cover story that appeared on newsstands Feb. 8. In the wake of Tyson’s passing on Jan. 28, we are publishing the magazine story in its entirety, along with three videos from Infantry’s Zoom interview and two portraits taken by photographer Gabor Jurina exclusively for Zoomer during a socially distant photo shoot at the atelier of her close friend and designer B Michael. And for further reading, Infantry takes a closer look at how acting became Tyson’s activism in the legend’s new memoir, Just as I Am, which came out Jan. 26.
In The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, the 1974 TV movie that established Cicely Tyson as a cinematic force, her fictional 110-year-old character scrutinizes a big-city magazine writer who has made the pilgrimage south to interview the former slave about her life.
“You wanna know how come I live so long,” a wary Pittman challenges the JFK lookalike, weighing whether to co-operate. Initially noncommittal, she unveils a tumultuous tale that begins in captivity on a Louisiana plantation at the end of the American Civil War, spans natural disasters and painful personal losses and ends with the tenacious matriarch embroiled in her small town’s desegregation efforts during the 1960s civil rights movement.
Equally compelling is the journey and staying power of the similarly steely Tyson, 96, who was born in New York in the midst of the Harlem Renaissance to Caribbean immigrant parents seeking opportunity and fell into acting, gaining prominence on the strength of strong, memorable characters. Like Pittman, Tyson has lived through some seismic shifts, from the Great Depression to the global pandemic meltdown, from the Voting Rights Act to Black Lives Matter, from the Equal Rights Amendment to #MeToo.
She has living legend status as a rare Black actress who is prolific and relevant across generations. In the ’60s and ’70s, Tyson inspired Black audiences unaccustomed to seeing their own on screens – especially when dark-skinned women were not considered attractive. She worked steadily through the ’80s and ’90s and is now at the peak of a resurgence that began in the 2000s when Tyler Perry began casting her in his popular Madea films. She continued garnering new appreciation and a diversified fan base with roles in The Help, House of Cards and How to Get Away With Murder. She’s the undisputed doyenne of Black actors and a mentor to younger colleagues like Oscar winner Viola Davis, who personally recruited Tyson to play the mother of her character, Annalise Keating, in How to Get Away With Murder after they both appeared as maids in 2011’s The Help.
“She was the manifestation of excellence and artistry, a dark-skinned, thick-lipped woman who truly mirrored me,” Davis writes in the foreword to Tyson’s new memoir Just as I Am, referring to her childhood experience of watching The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, in which Tyson aged before the camera from 19 to a centenarian.
“I can pinpoint the exact moment when my life opened up, and it was right there, in front of that set, that mine did. With one mesmerizing performance, with one gorgeously poignant rendering of her character, Ms. Tyson gave me permission to dream.”
Today, “representation matters” is a tagline, but forerunners like Tyson – the first Black woman to star in a TV drama, the first Black female character to appear on a soap opera and, after debuting a low-cut Afro, the first Black woman to wear her natural hair on TV – have always been a beacon for the disenfranchised.
“If you’re a young person today, it’s probably hard to imagine that seeing somebody Black on TV was important, but it was, and it was rare back then,” says Gil Robertson, president of the African-American Film Critics Association, in a phone interview from his home in Atlanta. The city is the location of Perry’s $250-million studio, built on a former Confederate Army base, where sound stages are named for 12 prominent Black entertainers, including Tyson, Halle Berry and Denzel Washington.
“Ms. Tyson was very profound in how she conducted herself, both on and off stage,” Robertson says. “For a lot of people, she really informed them of the dignity that we all know is real for Black women. And I would put her at the top of the heap of any actor, Black or white, in cinema.”
Tyson’s peers include Sidney Poitier, Eartha Kitt and James Baldwin; she is cousin to Green Book subject, jazz pianist Don Shirley; she was the third wife of trumpet great Miles Davis; and she is rocker Lenny Kravitz’s godmother. Despite her indelible position at the cross-section of African-American arts and culture, Tyson has been firmly circumspect, preferring to let characters like Pittman speak for her.
“I was known for the longest time as the mysterious woman in Hollywood. Nobody knew who I was. Nobody knew anything about me,” the amiable actress says in a recent video interview with Zoomer to talk about Just as I Am.
“My job, once I get hired, is to do as perfect a job as I can to satisfy the producers, etc. … What my private life is is what gives me what I need for my career. So why am I going to sit down and discuss my private life when I need it for my career?”
Convinced by her manager that people would benefit from getting behind “the glitter, the ribbons, the garnish” of her storied six-decade career, Tyson decided to explore how she has sustained Jane Pittman-like longevity, onscreen and off, in her book. Just as I Am is her truth, she says, “plain and unvarnished.”
During the requisite pandemic-era Zoom chat a few days before Christmas, the grande dame is gracious and red-carpet elegant, clad in shades of navy and plum, offset by a glistening black pageboy and fuchsia lips. She leans into the camera to emphasize points and punctuates the conversation with a musical, multisyllabic laugh. Tyson is softer and sleeker than the austere and matronly characters of her oeuvre and saucier than her majestic awards-podium mien suggests. And she’s super sharp: quick to correct a reporter who misstates the name of one of her actor friends.
Watch: Tyson On What Readers Can Take Away From Her Memoir
Seated in a fitting room in the Manhattan Garment District atelier of her longtime New York fashion designer and milliner B Michael, Tyson eagerly discusses the book, which traces her path from meagre beginnings to revered Hollywood monarch. One of three children of immigrants from Nevis, the tiny Caribbean island that birthed Alexander Hamilton, Tyson grew up poor and sheltered in East Harlem. It was here, where her parents worked as a produce peddler and a domestic, that she developed the courage and resilience to forge a trail that would make it easier for Black actresses to pursue their dreams. Church, which was central to her family life, is where the shy, studious girl first performed. Tyson was nine when her mother left their father, undone by his philandering and physical assaults. Time and again, whenever Tyson was floundering, whether intimidated by a role or insecure about a relationship, she rallied by recalling her mother’s fortitude and resourcefulness in striking out on her own with three young children in the 1930s.
After getting pregnant at 17 the first time she had sex, Tyson married her daughter’s father, a pastor’s son. But two years later, desiring freedom from nuptials she hadn’t wanted, Tyson ended the union to raise her daughter, Joan, on her own. She worked as a hairdresser and typist until, at the age of 30, a stranger stopped the chisel-cheeked, 5-foot-4 beauty on the street and suggested she model.
Catalogue work, then covers of Black magazines like Ebony and Jet, were Tyson’s gateway to acting. Her first big movie, 1972’s Sounder, garnered Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for her depiction of a sharecropper’s wife. But the racist attitudes Tyson encountered while promoting that film – some reporters found the loving portrayal of a Black family unrealistic – prompted a vow to play only women with uplifting legacies.
“I could not afford the luxury of simply being an actress,” Tyson writes in the book. “My art had to both mirror the times and propel them forward … As an artist with the privilege of the spotlight, I felt an enormous responsibility to use that forum as a force for good, as a place from which to display the full spectrum of our humanity. I was determined to do all I could to alter the narrative about Black people – to change the way Black women in particular were perceived, by reflecting our dignity.”
In Tyson’s ’70s heyday, roles for Black actresses ran the gamut from brash Blaxploitation films like the Pam Grier vehicle Foxy Brown to glamorous biopics like Lady Sings the Blues starring Diana Ross as Billie Holiday in an Oscar-nominated turn and the romantic comedy-drama Claudine, which earned Diahann Carroll an Oscar nod for playing a poor, single mother of six.
Tyson, who says in the book she can tolerate playing a downtrodden character like a slave or a maid “when doing so shines a light on an important chapter in history,” chose to play powerful historic figures such as Coretta Scott King, Harriet Tubman and Marva Collins and introduced some fictitious icons like Binta, Kunta Kinte’s mother, in Roots and, of course, Jane Pittman.
These dynamic roles fuelled Tyson’s alignment with the civil rights movement.
“She is as much activist as she is actress because she uses her skills and her leverage to change the conditions of people,” says Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr., the 79-year-old civil rights giant who worked with Martin Luther King Jr. He cited Tyson’s “profound cultural contribution” in a phone interview from his Chicago home. “The screen is her vocation. Her avocation is freedom, liberty. She’s a renaissance woman.” In 1984, Jackson, who ran a groundbreaking candidacy for president, invited Tyson to the Democratic Convention in San Francisco to re-enact former slave and women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth’s famous “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech.
“One can use art as a tool for social justice,” says Nsenga Burton, co-director of Film and Media Management at Atlanta’s Emory University, in an interview. “The selection of roles she played definitely helped move the needle.”
Tyson realizes her public image is conflated with the noble race warriors she inhabited. “I am the sum total of the women I have portrayed,” she writes. “Each has endowed me with an invaluable gift. From Rebecca [Sounder], I learned grace. From Jane, I gleaned determination. From Coretta, Harriet, Binta and others, I borrowed courage. That these Black women were able to survive what they did in the manner in which they did has allowed me to believe that I, too, can hold steady. My existence is tied up in theirs.”
While she has been a working actress for 60-plus years and is regarded reverentially in the African-American community, Tyson hasn’t enjoyed the same recognition afforded white actresses of her standing and prominent recent roles have come via Black powerhouses like Perry and Davis.
It is well-deserved payback, since the agency and fortune enjoyed by present-day heavy hitters like Perry – who went from living in his car to media mogul – and prolific show runner Shonda Rhimes – who has had a slew of hits, including How to Get Away With Murder – are built on the shoulders of boundary-pushing Black predecessors like Tyson.
Now it’s time to give her her flowers – African-American vernacular for celebrating her while she’s alive. In 2016, Barack Obama gave her plaudits, not posies, at the Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony. “Cicely Tyson has not only exceeded as an actor, she has shaped the course of history,” he said. “… Cicely’s convictions and grace have helped for us to see the dignity of every single beautiful member of the American family – and she’s just gorgeous!”
When Tyson received an honorary Oscar in 2018, writer, director, producer and film distributor Ava DuVernay name-checked a who’s who of Black actresses when she acknowledged Tyson as “the seed for so many of us …. we blossom because of you.” She was the first Black woman to receive an honorary Oscar, three years after the emergence of #OscarsSoWhite, a hashtag used to underscore a lack of diversity and traditionally limited options for Black performers and filmmakers in Hollywood. Tyson’s run of high-profile commendations include two Emmys for Jane Pittman in 1974 and another for best supporting actress in the 1994 mini-series Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, a Tony Award in 2013 for The Trip to Bountiful – after a 30-year absence from Broadway – a 2015 Kennedy Center Honor for her contribution to the performing arts and, in 2020, induction into the Television Academy Hall of Fame and a Peabody Award for career achievement.
While she doesn’t think discrimination has been eradicated from the performing arts industry, Tyson is thrilled at the influence and proliferation of African-Americans in front of the camera and behind the scenes. “I do think that we are in charge of our destination and that we are making choices that will help us achieve the goal that we want to achieve,” she says. “I can’t remember ever seeing so many Black actresses on TV, in movies, on the stage.”
Tyson’s approach to acting is the gold standard for people in the industry, some of whom are less than half her age. “She has a powerful stillness that is palpable through the screen; you don’t even need to hear what she’s saying. She’s communicating it with her entire being, and I feel that as an audience member and I’m inspired by it as a fellow actor,” says L.A.-based Cherion Drakes. As an acting student in her hometown of Montreal, the 30-something Canadian, who most recently appeared in Lifetime’s Christmas Unwrapped, admired Tyson as “a beautiful chocolate woman, same complexion as me.”
Tyson, who doesn’t shy away from legacy talk, is a founding board member of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, helped found the National Museum of African American History and Culture and, some semesters, teaches a master acting class at a performing and fine arts high school in New Jersey that bears her name.
Tyson says Just as I Am gives her a chance to share advice, and she’s intentional about speaking directly to all Black women, not just entertainers, to encourage them to walk taller and envision better lives.
“We’re so busy paying attention to everybody else and taking care of everyone else that we do not address our own personal needs,” says Tyson, who counsels Black women to grant themselves grace and carve out a purpose. “And in the long run, we end up unhappy because suddenly we realize we’ve spent all this time taking and giving to everyone else that we completely negate ourselves.”
Tyson is beloved in part because she remains “connected to the African-American community. Not all Black stars are,” says Burton, the Emory prof. “I love that we still see her at the NAACP Image Awards, Oprah’s Legends Ball, in these important spaces that celebrate Black people in general and Black women specifically.”
In December, along with the likes of Kerry Washington, Angela Bassett and Michelle Obama, Tyson figured prominently in Netflix’s viral “Hey Queen” video, which celebrated Black Girl Magic, or the resolve and accomplishments of Black women.
Superstitious about tipping her hand, Tyson, who in a testament to her vigour and abiding appeal still maintains a full calendar, won’t reveal any upcoming roles. Her job in recent months was to autograph about 20,000 page inserts for her book so bookstores can have some signed copies.
Tyson remains guarded about some aspects of her personal life. In the book, she says she sees her daughter, Joan, frequently, but their relationship is “fragile,” strained long ago by Tyson’s “pragmatic” decision to send her to a Christian boarding school at 10 to give her stability while Tyson was earning their keep.
But the thespian is open about why she never remarried after a turbulent eight-year union with the late jazz ace Miles Davis, who died in 1991, two years after they divorced. In the book, she recounts the mercurial musician’s infidelity, drug use and volatility, but calls him her one true love.
Like Jane Pittman, who never again surrendered her heart after the death of her husband, Tyson agrees with the suggestion that her capacity for romantic love was exhausted with Davis, whom she said was overwhelmed by personal demons and in need of solace. “You know this word love is very tricky…” she says, pausing and choosing her words carefully. “What I want to say, my mouth won’t let me say … It isn’t something that comes in and out of your life every day. It isn’t. When it’s real, you know it. Okay? And then you have the job of, when you meet someone else, comparing that with what the real thing to you was. Okay? And so, first of all, it isn’t easy for you to let another one into your life that quickly or even no matter how long. It isn’t easy. And so you’re protective of not only yourself but of the love that you had between you and the partner.”
These days, Tyson’s frequent escort is B Michael, who designed and curated her wardrobe for this cover shoot. She pops up often on his Instagram page, out and about in pre-pandemic times with Michael and his husband and business partner, Mark-Anthony Edwards. “We are extended family. We share family life events together. We are in touch on a daily basis,” says Michael in a phone interview, adding that the trio often refer to themselves as The Thirds.
He’s largely responsible for the stunning gowns and occasional pantsuits that make Tyson a fashion blogger’s delight – and a graceful counterpoint to the often dowdy characters she plays. She’s just as amazed by her attire.
“Half the time, I don’t know what I’m going to wear, when or where …” says Tyson, her laugh echoing through the screen. “You think I knew what I was going to put on today?” she says about her luxurious coatdress. But, she adds, “He hasn’t made a mistake yet.”
Tyson met Michael in 2005 when a mutual friend recommended him to outfit her for Oprah Winfrey’s swanky Legends Ball. “The only other muse-designer that I feel reflect us would be Givenchy and Audrey Hepburn,” says Michael, who has dressed late luminaries like Lena Horne, Whitney Houston and Nancy Wilson.
“I never approach dressing Ms. Tyson based on her height or even based on her age,” he adds. “I see her as Hollywood royalty. It’s about understanding the glamour of that, but I also want to keep her very modern but timeless … I know I can dress her in something avant-garde. I know she’s not afraid of that. As a muse, she’s a designer’s dream because there’s no off limits.”
WATCH: Tyson On the Iconic Hat She Wore to Aretha Franklin’s Funeral
The gloriously oversized hat she wore to Aretha Franklin’s massive Detroit funeral in 2018 was his creation. “It really heightened the homage that we wanted to pay to Aretha and, truthfully, only Cicely Tyson could have worn that hat to that service,” said Michael of the piece, which was one of the highlights of the event.
But the gigantic, ruffled, black- straw chapeau elicited a rare pushback from his usually acquiescent client.
“I. Did. Not. Want. To. Wear. That. Hat. Do you hear me?” exclaims Tyson, who recited a poem at the funeral. “And he insisted that I put that hat on my head. ‘You hear me?’ I said, ‘The people that are going to be sitting behind me are going to be very upset. They’re not going to be able to see anything.’ ‘Put it on!’ Well, the rest is history.”
Tyson appears as lean and agile as when she began modelling in 1954. At her first manager’s suggestion, she shaved a decade off her age when she started acting and easily maintained the charade for 60 years.
In the book, Tyson credits celery juice, neighbourhood walks, liquid cayenne pepper she never leaves home without and three daily sets of 20 pull-ups from a bar in her bedroom doorway for bringing her healthily into her 10th decade.
On the call, Tyson demurs on the exact number of pull-ups she can execute. Instead, she backs into fitness advice with a mirthful anecdote about her makeup artist, Armond Hambrick, who embarked on a diet and fitness revamp after she chided him for his pot-belly. One can only imagine the motivation of a shade-throwing nonagenarian.
“I have been exercising ever since I can remember,” says Tyson. “I said to him, ‘One of the things you have got to do is take a complete picture of yourself and decide whether you want to continue going in this direction or change. It’s up to you.’”
On the Saturday before Christmas, The Thirds celebrated Tyson’s 96th birthday at Michael’s home.
WATCH: Tyson Recalls Coming Home at 3:30 a.m After 96th Birthday
“We had a great time stuffing our faces with sushi, having just the most delightful conversation and reminiscing about those that we’ve known throughout our lives and those that we’ve lost, unfortunately,” says Tyson smiling at the memory. “It was quiet, and we laughed, we talked. They tried to get me to soak down a whole bottle of champagne, which I refused to do, but I did stick my finger in and put it in my mouth.”
She chuckles naughtily as she recalls the reaction when she returned home in the wee hours.
“Now my doorman never seen me come in at that hour. And [he said] ‘Just because, Ms. Tyson, you’re a year older, that does not give you the right to be strutting in here at 3:30 in the morning.’”