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

It was an important finding. My early ambition was to become an actress, and the few black women I saw on television and in movies – Diahann Carroll, Nichelle Nichols – were glamorous but emotionally inaccessible, as “done” as their impeccable hair and makeup. up. Likewise, the street superheroes like Teresa Graves and Tamara Dobson in the so-called Blaxploitation films of the 1970s; as Christie Love and Cleopatra Jones they were beautiful and confident but seemed to be spreading an urban myth of blacks being Teflon-hard. In contrast, Tyson embodied and embraced the resilience of everyday life, which was marked by clear moments of doubt and even despair. She was regal but regular, qualities emphasized by her dark skin that had forced black women for generations to play archetypal maids or mummies (the epitome of Teflon), if they got roles at all.

In addition to her acting acumen in a seven-decade long career that spanned films, television and theater, Tyson’s greatest contribution to the entertainment industry was the advancement of a standard of beauty that, despite the bravado of the Black Power movement, was profoundly radical. It stays that way. As a girl, I was surprised by her looks, which I and many other black girls had found ugly: dark-skinned, with decidedly non-European features, preferring braids and natural hair. Such an aesthetic has long been rejected as too African, let alone a real star, in a store that rejected even fair-skinned Lena Horne types as too colorful for permanent work. Tyson not only struck that notion, he also struck the age-old phenomenon of black self-hatred.

Liberating as Tyson’s notoriety was, it didn’t become the norm. After the 1970s, when Tyson was at its peak, it took dark-skinned Black women a few more generations – for the Black woman era – to establish a presence and depth on screen. In movies and across all media platforms, we now have actors like Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer who both appeared with Tyson in The help, a 2011 film about maids that’s at least black-centered. On HBO, there’s Issa Rae, who built on Tyson’s legacy of being black, beautiful, and together, but vulnerable, even – maybe even mostly – “unsafe”. Rae quickly went from actress to producer, talent scout and influencer, turning other Black women into the same thing. It’s all very encouraging and I hope it continues.

There are still miles to go. While “Insecure” opened up critical new space and emotional territory, it was largely praised for the kind of sharp comic sensibility that we normally associate with black performance. Tyson was a dramatic actor who defied hipness. She didn’t often parry Black Pain with comedy, profanity, or nasty comebacks. It wasn’t polished or fly. That made her great and groundbreaking.

I grew up as a writer, not an actor. But even after 50 years, I still dream of the screen and the stage. Tyson played her whole life, never letting go of what she loved and how she loved it; that assurance, and a certain glamor that came with so much self-control, increased with age. It is just one more example that she set and that is still waiting to be accompanied by more examples and to make the leap into tradition.

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