Looking at Cicely Tyson
“I see the beauty now,” my mother told me when I asked her what she thought of Cicely Tyson’s face, about a week after the pathbreaking actor died in January at ninety-six. “But I didn’t then.” By “then,” she meant the decade and a half in the middle of the twentieth century, when Tyson won role after role in well-financed productions in the Hollywood system and made-for-TV films broadcast on the networks. Those were the years people learned her name. In Tyson’s earliest roles—starting with 1956’s Carib Gold, in which she was part of an ensemble that included Diana Sands and Ethel Waters—she’d made uncredited appearances, customary for actors who were not yet in the union. Tyson was in her early thirties when she began acting, yet she’d place her age behind by a decade at her agent’s request. It was a plausible lie because Tyson kept a youthful glow, with taut, espresso-brown skin that had rosy undertones, round black eyes that pierced and trembled, an erudite poise that made it seem as though her reach stretched well beyond its diminutive frame. For events, she was wise and precise with her attire, a trait she attributed to her parents, who’d arrived at Ellis Island from Nevis toward the end of the 1910s and settled in an East Harlem tenement. “When she and my dad strode into [church]—Mom in her rayon frock, high heels, and straw hat cocked to one side—a hush fell over the sanctuary,” Tyson writes in her memoir, Just as I Am. This was beauty, with substance underneath—wielded as honor and armor.
My own mother was in her early teens when Tyson first appeared in film. In high school, she sang in a trio, made excellent grades, had romantic eyes. It was the early ’60s, before integration had come to our city. Still, we had our own: swimming pools, Carnival queens, debutante balls, charm schools, teachers who worked extra hours to ensure students thrived. My mother learned Beethoven’s sonatas and the poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar. And she learned the rules, which said only girls with the lightest skin would win coveted spots on the student council, majorettes’ squad, or homecoming court.
As the decade turned, Black filmmakers exerted great effort creating a cinema that would break with Hollywood’s old scripts, which had been rooted in minstrelsy and coaxed grotesque physical affect, muted sexuality, or flattened intelligence out of brilliant and dynamic performers. “No other period in black movie history . . . has been quite so energetic,” Donald Bogle wrote of the 1970s. The new cinema addressed a complicated social reality. Machismo, key to the personas of Sweetback, Shaft, and Superfly, was counterpoint to the powerlessness elicited by police violence and rising Black and brown unemployment. Diana Ross and Billy Dee Williams gave us romance and sensual, elegant urbaneness in a suite of films, embodying the yearnings of a growing middle class. There was a parallel breakthrough in music. Soul, then popular among Black and non-Black audiences, emphasized radical self-acceptance, communal bonds formed through struggle, and mutual aid. In 1972, Donny Hathaway and Roberta Flack cut an album of duets that included “Be Real Black for Me,” a ballad they composed. “Is this a love song between two lovers, or an ode to a culture and a heritage?” music writer Rob Jones wonders on his crate-diggers’ music blog, The Delete Bin. It is both. Your hair, soft and crinkly, Flack coos. I’ve got your love at home.
Sounder was released in theaters the same year. Directed by Martin Ritt, with a screenplay adapted by Lonne Elder III from a YA novel, the film portrays a sharecropping family perpetually on the edge of precarity. The family’s patriarch, Nathan (Paul Winfield), is arrested for stealing food from a nearby cabin and sentenced to a year in a prison camp. In Tyson’s first turn as a leading lady, she plays Rebecca, a loving wife and mother who keeps the farm going in Nathan’s absence with hard labor and emotional sustenance. The story is told through the point of view of David, the eldest son, played with wisdom and curiosity by Kevin Hooks, who would go on to star in the Romeo and Juliet–inspired Aaron Loves Angela with Irene Cara in 1975, among other films. (Hooks, a young actor in the ’70s film boom, became a filmmaker during the next Black wave, directing 1991’s Strictly Business and the 1992 Wesley Snipes vehicle Passenger 57.) Tyson’s Rebecca is earthy and earnest, and her strong yet weary body also somehow communicates grace, hope beyond hope for the future, and obvious affection for her husband and children. For her achievement, Tyson won an Oscar nomination. The ceremony aired late March of the following year and was memorable for the cluster of nominations the film earned: best actress for Tyson; best actor for Winfield; best adapted screenplay for Elder; best picture for the entire production. Tyson shared her category with Ross, who’d received the nod for her turn as Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues. The winner? Liza Minnelli for Cabaret, the lush Fosse-directed musical reimagining of Weimar Germany. In her memoir, Tyson writes that she knew Minnelli would best her before the ceremony even began. Still, that year, more Black artists were nominated for Oscars than any year before, and few years since have been as flush with Black talent.
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