Cicely Tyson: 6 Career-Defining Roles

Forty years ago, the legendary actress became the first black woman to win an Emmy for a leading role.

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Cicely Tyson

Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for Princess Grace Foundation

Long before Kerry Washington started handling her business in her Emmy-nominated role as Olivia Pope, actress Cicely Tyson was doing her thing and helping to open doors for actresses like Washington. Forty years ago, Tyson became the first black woman to win an Emmy in a leading role for her performance in the miniseries The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.

Tyson was dark-skinned and didn’t meet the standard definition of beauty set by Hollywood, but she was real and she was ours. In her performances, especially in the ’70s, she represented everything black people felt—the pain, the disappointment but also the hope. Tyson was regal and dignified in every role she played, whether she was the wife of a sharecropper or the wife of a civil rights icon. Here are six of her most compelling performances that show why she is one of the greatest actresses of her generation. 

1. Sounder, 1972

Tyson earned an Oscar nomination for best actress for her role as the wife of a sharecropper wrongfully accused of a crime. The scene in which Tyson runs down the dirt road to greet her newly freed husband is one of the most memorable moments of the film and will leave you boo-hooing like a baby.

2. The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, 1974

Based on the 1971 novel of the same name by Ernest J. Gaines, the made-for-TV movie was one of the first to treat African Americans with depth and sympathy, laying the groundwork for other stories such as Roots, which would air three years later. Tyson plays the titular character, who grows from a young slave girl to a 110-year-old matriarch at the dawn of the civil rights movement. In addition to winning the best actress Emmy for this role, Tyson snagged an Emmy for actress of the year.

3. A Woman Called Moses, 1978

Tyson portrays Harriet Tubman before and after she becomes the leader of the Underground Railroad. One scene in particular plays out like a metaphor for Tyson’s entire career: Tubman gets tricked by one of the white slave masters into pulling a wagon like a mule. As she pulls the wagon, white socialites stand on the sidelines laughing and egging her on. When she’s done, she walks away without a word or a tear. Like Tubman, Tyson has carried the weight of a people on her back, helping to open up avenues of success in TV and film.

 4. King, 1978

Here Tyson, paired once again with her Sounder co-star Paul Winfield, plays Coretta Scott King. Although the two women looked nothing alike, Tyson had the gravitas to show the grace and dignity embodied by the wife of Martin Luther King Jr. Tyson would earn another Emmy nomination for her role in this miniseries.

5. A Lesson Before Dying, 1999

In another film based on a novel by Gaines, Tyson plays Tante Lou, whose nephew Jefferson (Mekhi Phifer) is sentenced to death for the murder of a white man. Jefferson’s godmother (Irma P. Hall) and Lou ask schoolteacher Grant Wiggins (Don Cheadle) to teach Jefferson how to be a man after his own lawyer refers to him as being no better than a hog. At this point in Tyson’s career, this type of role would appear to be a cakewalk, but she still manages to evoke so much emotion that it never gets old watching her.

6. The Trip to Bountiful, 2014

In the Lifetime movie, based on her Tony Award-winning role on Broadway—her first time capturing that award—Tyson proved she could still bring it, even in her late 70s. As she did when she won the Emmy in the 1970s, paving a path for young black actors to follow, she’s also showing them how to sustain a career in a business that eats its young.

Bonus: Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman?”

We’ll never know what it was like to hear Sojourner Truth deliver her iconic speech to the Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio, in 1851. But Tyson’s performance of the speech at the congressional unveiling of a bust of Truth in 2009 probably comes pretty close. (Truth was the first black woman to be honored with a bust at the U.S. Capitol.)

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