Harlem-born actor Cicely Tyson (1924–) has been shifting nimbly between stage, television, and film since the early 1950s. Her first film role was in the 1957 sea adventure Carib Gold, which also featured the veteran American performer Ethel Waters. Tyson also appeared in the original cast of The Blacks (1961), written by Jean Genet, which became the longest-running off-Broadway non-musical of the decade, and that same year she appeared on the television show Frontiers of Faith. While Tyson’s striking looks landed her in Ebony magazine, her instinctive acting prowess led to more roles on the New York stage, and, in 1966, to the legendary soap opera Guiding Light, on which she joined Ruby Dee, James Earl Jones, and Billy Dee Williams among the first African Americans to star on a daytime television series.
A major turning point came in 1972, with Sounder, directed by Martin Ritt and based on the novel by William H. Armstrong. Starring as Rebecca Morgan, Tyson found a deep, heartbreaking nobility in a Louisiana sharecropper facing the Great Depression alone with her son. Sounder was unique for its time in featuring an intact, devoted African American family during an era when flamboyant Blaxploitation films like Super Fly (1972) supported unfortunate stereotypes and gripped the box office. Sounder earned four Academy Award nominations, including a best actress nod for Tyson.
Tyson has continually returned to television with a string of memorable roles, from The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1974) to in a 2014 production of Horton Foote’s elegiac and optimistic The Trip to Bountiful. Choice supporting roles in films directed by everyone from Tyler Perry to Richard Linklater keep Tyson front and center in feature films, and she has earned multiple industry awards: Emmy, Tony, an honorary Oscar, Kennedy Center Honors, and, in 2016, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States’ highest civilian honor.
Organized by Anne Morra, Associate Curator, Department of Film.