A trailblazer in the acting community on stage, television and the big screen, Cicely Tyson (1924-2021) was an inspiration to generations with her powerful, multidimensional portrayals of independent women in both dramas and comedies. The actress, who died in January at 96, was the recipient of an Academy Honorary Award in 2018. She began as a fashion model at an early age and acted opposite some of the greatest luminaries of the past century ranging from Maya Angelou to George C. Scott. She continued to work throughout her entire life, including in films by Tyler Perry, who named one of the soundstages at his Atlanta studio after her. Below are a few essential titles from a life and career that will never be forgotten.
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
Carson McCullers’ classic novel was memorably adapted for the screen and earned two Oscar nominations with a young Tyson standing out alongside Alan Arkin and Sondra Locke in the story of a disabled man who forges a bond with his landlady’s daughter. Here Tyson grabs your attention as Portia, a woman who uses her education to fight for her wrongfully accused husband and buck the forces of segregation.
Nominated for four Oscars and a winner for Supporting Actress for Octavia Spencer, this seriocomic look at the struggles of Southern maids during the Civil Rights Movement features Tyson in the pivotal role of a woman whose firing spurs an aspiring author (played by Emma Stone) to conduct a string of interviews with African-American maids in Jackson, Mississippi.
This ensemble musical from the one and only OutKast is a feast of character actors and stylish 1930s settings, with Tyson getting a choice supporting role as the mysterious Mother Hopkins who sends André 3000 and Big Boi on a spiritually destined path in a world of crime and quick schemes.
Last Flag Flying
Many directors realized the value of Tyson as a secret weapon among character actors, with Richard Linklater casting her in this more or less sequel to the 1973 classic The Last Detail. Here she plays the mother of a deceased Vietnam War soldier who is unaware of the story behind her son’s death. When a trio of vets played by Steve Carell, Laurence Fishburne and Bryan Cranston visit her, they must decide whether or not to tell her the truth about how he died.
Tyson proved her comic chops with social consciousness to boot when she starred with Richard Pryor in this delightful road movie as a schoolteacher who enlists a parolee to help her transport eight special needs children after budget cuts wipe out their school.
A Man Called Adam
Tyson had her first major feature role in this music-packed drama starring Sammy Davis Jr. as a jazz musician whose addictive impulses and attempts to sabotage himself run counter to the potential romance he has with Tyson’s civil rights activist. Also featuring Louis Armstrong and Ossie Davis, the film is highlighted by its powerhouse cast and generous selection of searing jazz performances.
The River Niger
Adapted from the acclaimed play by Joseph A. Walker, this effective character study had only a limited release in its day but has become appreciated for its trio of fine central performances from Tyson, James Earl Jones and Louis Gossett Jr. Set in Watts, the film follows a house painter with dreams of becoming a poet who has to grapple with daily challenges including the health of his wife and ongoing local crime.
Tyson’s most famous film role earned her an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress in this classic adaptation of the beloved William H. Armstrong novel. Here she plays Rebecca, who works as a sharecropper in Depression-era Louisiana with her husband (Paul Winfield). With its innovative soundtrack by Taj Mahal and meticulous re-creation of 1930s life in the South, the film became an immediate American classic and remains essential viewing for all ages.