Cicely Tyson: The Actor Who Redefined Black Characters and Black Beauty

It was an essential realization. My early ambition was to be an actor, and the few Black girls I noticed on TV and in films — Diahann Carroll, Nichelle Nichols — had been glamorous, however emotionally inaccessible, as “finished” as their impeccable hair and make-up. Ditto the road superheroines like Teresa Graves and Tamara Dobson within the so-called Blaxploitation films of the Nineteen Seventies; as Christie Love and Cleopatra Jones, they had been lovely and assured however appeared to propagate an city fable of Black individuals as Teflon-tough. In distinction, Tyson embodied, and embraced, the resilience of on a regular basis life that was knowledgeable by clear moments of doubt, and even despair. She was regal however common, qualities emphasised by her darkish pores and skin that for generations had consigned Black girls to enjoying archetypal maids or mammies (the epitome of Teflon) after they received roles in any respect.

Subsequent to her performing acumen, throughout a seven-decade profession that spanned films, TV and performs, Tyson’s biggest contribution to the leisure business was advancing a magnificence customary that — the bravura of the Black Energy motion however — was deeply radical. It stays so. As a lady, I used to be bowled over by her look, which I and many different Black ladies had been conditioned to see as unpretty: dark-skinned, with decidedly non-European options, favoring braids and pure hair. Such an aesthetic had lengthy been rejected as too African in a enterprise that rejected even light-skinned Lena Horne-types as too coloured for regular work, not to mention actual stardom. Tyson struck a blow not simply to that notion, but additionally to the traditional phenomenon of Black self-loathing.

As liberating as Tyson’s prominence was, it didn’t change into the norm. After the ’70s, when Tyson was at her peak, it took a pair extra generations for dark-skinned Black girls — for Black girls interval — to ascertain a presence and depth on the display screen. In films and throughout media platforms, we now have actors like Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, each of whom appeared with Tyson in The Assist, a 2011 movie about maids that’s no less than Black-centered. On HBO, there’s Issa Rae, who has constructed on Tyson’s legacy in being Black, lovely and collectively, however weak, even — possibly even principally — “insecure.” Rae has swiftly expanded from being an actor to being a producer, expertise scout and influencer, organising different Black girls to be the identical. It’s all very encouraging, and I hope it lasts.


There are nonetheless miles to go. Whereas “Insecure” has staked out crucial new area and emotional territory, it has largely been lauded for a form of sharp comedian sensibility we are inclined to affiliate with Black efficiency. Tyson was a dramatic actor who resisted hipness. She didn’t typically parry Black ache with comedy, profanity or depraved comebacks. She was not polished or fly. That’s what made her nice, and groundbreaking.

I grew as much as be a author, not an actor. However 50 years on, I nonetheless harbor desires of the display screen and stage. Tyson acted her complete life, by no means let go of what she beloved to do and how she beloved to do it; that certainty, and a sure glamour that went together with being so self-possessed, really elevated with age. It’s only one extra instance she set that also waits to be joined by extra examples, and to make that leap into custom.

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