On January 28th, the world lost a trailblazer known for breaking barriers in Hollywood during a time when the representation of powerful black women in film was entirely nonexistent. At 96 years old, Cicely Tyson left behind a fruitful career and legacy that will continue to inspire generations to come.
Born and raised in East Harlem, New York to immigrant parents from Nevas, West Indies, Tyson found stardom at an early age through modeling. Her beauty did not go unnoticed, as a hairdresser insisted that she model a style of his at a local fashion show. At the show, she garnered attention for her alluring presence and was persuaded by many attendees to pursue modeling as a full-time career. Tyson took the advice and joined the Barbara Watson Modeling School where she began doing her first-ever photo shoots. Not long after, she quickly became one of the most in-demand models the industry had to offer, consistently adorning the covers of major publications like Ebony, Vogue, and Harper’s Bazaar.
Despite finding success in modeling, Tyson still ached to do something more fulfilling. It was only a matter of time before she discovered that acting could fill that void inside of her. To the younger generation, Tyson may be most recognizable for her role as Ophelia Harkness in the 2014 legal drama show How to Get Away with Murder, but those who have lived long enough to witness the vastness of Tyson’s work, are aware of her versatility.
Her first acting gig was in 1951 for an NBC television series called Frontiers of Faith, followed by small parts in films like Carib Gold, Odds Against Tomorrow, and The Last Angry Man. By the 1970s, Tyson was a household name, securing a lead role in the movie Sounder, as well as the title role in the television film The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, where she portrayed a Black women’s story of survival from slavery to the Civil Rights era. Tyson went on to make a myriad of critically acclaimed movies and television shows up until 2020, which was her final year of acting.
Throughout her career, Tyson received countless accolades for all the groundbreaking roles she played, including 16 Primetime Emmy nominations (three of which she won), an Academy Award nomination, a Golden Globe nomination, and a BAFTA nomination. She was also the recipient of an honorary Oscar at the 2018 Governor’s Awards. In her Oscar’s speech, Tyson reflected on the humble beginnings that shaped her. “I come from lowly status. I grew up in an area that was called the slums at the time. I still cannot imagine that I have met with presidents, kings, queens. How did I get here? I marvel at it.”
When explaining what it is about Tyson that amassed her so much adoration for over seven decades, author and film historian Donald Bogle claims it was everything about her. “A striking figure: slender and intense with the near-perfect bone structure, magnificent smooth skin, dark penetrating eyes, and regal air that made her seem a woman of convictions and commitment. (Audiences) sensed… her power and range.”
Cicely Tyson was a master of her craft and a true pioneer in the entertainment industry. May her spirit live on through the impact that she made for young black women everywhere.