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Cicely Tyson, the pioneer for Black women in cinema, dies at 96

Tyson, who appeared on screen and in Broadway roles past what was her 90th birthday, left an unforgettable mark on Hollywood.

Cicely Tyson, the pioneer for Black women in cinema, dies at 96
Cover Image Source: Getty Images/ Actor Cicely Tyson speaks onstage at the screening of 'Sounder' during Day 2 of the 2018 TCM Classic Film Festival on April 27, 2018, in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Charley Gallay)

Cicely Tyson, the pioneering Black actor whose electrifying portrayals of strong African-American women shattered racial stereotypes in early Hollywood, died on Thursday at age 96. The icon's death was announced by her family, via her longtime manager Larry Thompson who provided no other details. "With heavy heart, the family of Miss Cicely Tyson announces her peaceful transition this afternoon. At this time, please allow the family their privacy," Thompson said in a statement.

 



 

 

 



 

 

Tyson, who appeared on screen and in Broadway roles past what was her 90th birthday, left an unforgettable mark on Hollywood through her portrayals of resilient Black women. The finesse with which she embodied women of great poise striving under great pressure may have had something to do with her own life which was strewn with obstacles and periods of tumult. According to The Washington Post, the star was born in New York City's Harlem neighborhood on Dec. 18, 1924, to West Indian immigrants who made a living through menial jobs. Her parents divorced when Tyson was around 11-years-old and she went on to live with her mother who forbade her to date or see plays or movies.

 



 

 

 



 

 

Growing up with a deeply religious mother, Tyson's life early life revolved around an Episcopal church in Harlem, where she sang in the choir and played piano and organ. She later became a typist for a social services agency. Speaking of the moment she realized she wanted more in life in an interview years later, the star said: "One day, I was just overwhelmed with the mechanics of the job. I thought, 'God didn't put me on the face of the earth to type for the rest of my life.' A week after that, my hairdresser called me and asked me if I'd appear in a hairstyle show she was doing. I did during my lunch hour and it was great fun."

 



 

 

 



 

 

The show led to more modeling work and eventually, acting offers. While Tyson pursued a career in acting, her mother refused to speak to her for two years and only relented after seeing her star in a drama at the Harlem YMCA in 1956. "And when it was all over," Tyson later said in an interview, "my mother was standing at the exit, accepting congratulations. Can you imagine?" She went on to join the cast of up-and-coming African American performers in the 1961 production of Jean Genet's The Blacks, an anti-colonial drama that was an off-Broadway hit, along with Louis Gossett Jr. and James Earl Jones.

 



 

 

 



 

 

She received a prestigious Vernon Rice Award for her role as a prostitute named Virtue in the production and later again, for playing a hooker in the 1962 off-Broadway play Moon on a Rainbow Shawl. "After that," Tyson said, "I was offered the part of another whore." She turned it down. These stereotypes followed her throughout her career as the entertainment industry sought to cast Black women in demeaning roles as prostitutes, drug addicts, and housemaids. Tyson refused many such roles offered to her, vowing to accept only parts of "strength, pride, and dignity."

 



 

 

 



 

 

Her uncompromising selectivity put her out of work for months and sometimes years at a stretch, even after her breakthrough, Oscar-nominated performance as a sharecropper's wife in the 1972 Sounder, a drama set in the Depression-era South. "I wait for roles — first, to be written for a woman, then, to be written for a black woman," Tyson said in a 1997 interview. "And then I have the audacity to be selective about the kinds of roles I play. I've really got three strikes against me. So, aren't you amazed I'm still here?"

 



 

 

 



 

 

Tyson also addressed some Black viewers' disapproval of the fact that Sounder was made by a White director and White producers, by pointing out that the film offered Black actors a rare dramatic showcase amid the likes of Shaft and Superfly that was awash in sex and violence and anger at the White establishment. "I cannot put down those films completely, because they allowed us to get our foot in the door," she said. "But all right, we're here now, and it's time that we said something else. Okay, so we have prostitutes and pimps and con men and pushers, the way they show in those movies, but we also have mothers and fathers and doctors and lawyers and teachers and politicians."

 



 

 

 



 

 

"Take a picture like 'The Godfather.' I came out liking that guy, but he was a murderer. Still, he was warm and loving with his family... He was a total character. But in those black films, they don’t draw the character. He has no life, beyond the way he earns his living," she added. In 1974, two years after Sounder, Tyson astonished audiences and many reviewers as the title character in the CBS-TV movie The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. Her portrayal of a 110-year-old formerly enslaved woman who lives to see the civil rights movement flower, bagged her two Emmy Awards.

 



 

 

 



 

 

Her third and final Emmy was for a supporting role as a strong-willed housekeeper of a Civil War veteran in Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, a 1994 CBS-TV movie based on Allan Gurganus's best-selling novel. Tyson capped her career with a Tony Award at 89 for her performance as a spirited widow in The Trip to Bountiful — a 2013 Broadway revival of the Horton Foote drama — became a Kennedy Center honoree in 2015, receiving the award for a lifetime of powerful performances in roles that shattered boundaries for African American women. The following year, President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, and in 2018, she was given an honorary Oscar.

 



 

 



 

 

Determined to let only her work speak for herself, Tyson shielded the details of her private life. A list of survivors could not immediately be confirmed. Her only husband, by most accounts, was jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, whom she had dated for several acrimonious years in the 1960s. She helped wean him off cigarettes, alcohol, and hard drugs after they wed in 1981, but their turbulent personalities and his infidelities led to violent arguments between the couple. They divorced a few years before his death in 1991. Of her career, she once said, "It amuses me when people say, 'Oh, my God, you've done so much.' But it isn't that I've done so much. It's that what I have done has made a real impact, and I'd rather have it that way."

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