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.

Cicely Tyson
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