WCW: Cicely Tyson


Star of stage and screen, Cicely Tyson is still going at age 96 with a recurring TV series role and no plans to retire. She’s received a Tony Award and several Emmy Awards, and President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in November 2016. Obama quoted Tyson’s own words at the time, where she said of her acting work:

“I would not accept roles unless they projected us, particularly women, in a realistic light and dealt with us as human beings.”

She’s made a point, since early in her career, of portraying people and characters who have depth and dignity, no matter how few minutes they might be a part of a movie or TV show. Many of these roles have been real historical figures, which helps bring African-American history to a wider audience. So let’s give Cicely Tyson some frock flick love for all she’s done!



Princess Lucenda in “A Bride for Obie Brown,” Here Come the Brides (1970)

Cicely Tyson - Here Come the Brides (1970)

OK, so this is an odd start — set in post-American Civil War Seattle, she’s a romantic interest for a lone Black logger.


Rebecca in Sounder (1972)

Cicely Tyson - Sounder (1972)

This was Tyson’s breakout role as the wife of a sharecroppers in the Depression-era South. She was nominated for Best Actress Oscar.

In an interview with Behind the Lens, Cicely Tyson explained how this was when she decided what kind of roles she would take:

“I think that I made a very conscious decision the early part of my career when I was doing promotion for ‘Sounder.’ I was at a press conference, and one of the journalists stood up and said, ‘I discovered a bit of prejudice in myself which I had never thought existed.’ And it came about at a moment when Kevin Hooks who played my oldest son called his father “daddy.” And so I asked if he had any children and he says, ‘Yes.’ And point of fact, he had two sons, like I had two sons [in the film]. And I asked, ‘What did they call you?’ He said, ‘Daddy.’ He could not equate the fact that this little black boy was calling this black man daddy like his children were calling him daddy.

It floored me. It absolutely floored me. I just feel it here. I couldn’t believe what the man was saying. I couldn’t believe it. And I thought to myself, ‘This is absolute sheer ignorance.’ I said [to myself], ‘What is the difference? Is he a man just like you are?’ I didn’t say this to him, but I was too stunned to say anything. And then finally I said to him, ‘I have to tell you that I admire your chutzpah.’ And the audience laughed because I had to break it some kind of way. I said, ‘For you to stand up here in the midst of all your peers and make that statement, I really respect you. Because you discovered something about yourself. And in the process, other people here will have the same experience.’

I never forgot that. I made my mind up at that moment, that and one or two other similar experiences, that I could not afford the luxury of just being an actress. I had to do something that I felt would in some way benefit humankind. And I chose my career as my platform to address causes that I felt I want to change it some way. I went for five years without working. During that time I just went around schools, talking to kids and so on. But I wouldn’t take anything that I felt was degrading in any way. I couldn’t do it.”


Jane Pittman in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1974)

Cicely Tyson - Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1974)

This TV movie tells the story of a Black woman born into slavery in the 1850s…

Cicely Tyson - Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1974)

…who lives to be part of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Cicely Tyson won a Best Lead Actress Emmy, & the TV movie also won Emmys for costume design & makeup.


Binta in “Part I,” Roots (1977)

Cicely Tyson, Roots (1977)

She plays Kunta Kinte’s mother in the Gambia, West Africa, c. 1750, at the start of this hugely influential miniseries.


Coretta Scott King in King (1978)

Cicely Tyson, King (1978)

Rocking the cat-eyes as MLKJ’s wife in this biopic, the first fictional account of the civil rights leader’s life.


Harriet Tubman in A Woman Called Moses (1978)

A Woman Called Moses (1978)

A two-part TV miniseries telling the life of the famed abolitionist.

A Woman Called Moses (1978)


Mrs. Browne in The Women of Brewster Place (1989)

Cicely Tyson, The Women of Brewster Place (1989)

Tyson guested in two episodes as a tenant’s disapproving mother in this short-lived series.


Sipsey in Fried Green Tomatoes (1991)

Cicely Tyson, Fried Green Tomatoes (1991)

Set in the 1910s-1930s, Tyson has a key role as the family cook who then becomes the cook for the Whistle Stop Cafe.


Castralia in Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All (1994)

Cicely Tyson, Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All (1994)

She won a Best Actress Emmy for portraying a woman who serves the Marsden family, first enslaved & then as a maid. But I can’t find ANY images from this TV movie except the DVD cover! It also won Emmys for costume design & hairstyling, so you’d think promo stills would be floating around somewhere.


Stephanie St. Clair in Hoodlum (1997)

Cicely Tyson, Hoodlum (1997)

I love the look of this flick about Black gangsters in the 1930s!

Cicely Tyson, Hoodlum (1997)

Also, Stephanie St. Clair was a real person who ran a numbers racket & was politically active.


Mama Flora in Mama Flora’s Family (1998)

Cicely Tyson, Mama Flora's Family (1998)

This is another sweeping family saga, spanning the 1910s to the 1970s.

Cicely Tyson, Mama Flora's Family (1998)

Check out this great cast: Jon Avnet, Queen Latifah, Cicely Tyson, Blair Underwood, & Mario Van Peebles!


Tante Lou in A Lesson Before Dying (1990)

Cicely Tyson, A Lesson Before Dying (1990)

With Don Cheadle, set in the 1940s.


Leona Edwards McCauley in The Rosa Parks Story (2002)

Cicely Tyson, The Rosa Parks Story (2002)

Angela Bassett plays Rosa Parks, Cicely Tyson plays her mother.


Mother Hopkins in Idlewild (2006)

Cicely Tyson, Idlewild (2006)

Can’t tell what kind of character she plays, but this hip-hop / jazz age musical is on my to-watch list!


Constantine Jefferson in The Help (2011)

Cicely Tyson, The Help (2011)

In Behind the Lens, Cicely Tyson said of this film:

“I don’t think there are any small roles. And I’ll tell you something, when I did ‘The Help,’ it was two seconds long. When I read a script, and I say this all the time, either my skin tingles or my stomach churns. When my stomach churns, I know it is something I cannot touch. I can’t do it. When I get so excited, my skin [tingles], I can’t wait, I can’t wait, I can’t wait! Okay?

So when I got the role of Constantine in ‘The Help,’ my agent was somewhat upset because he wanted me to do one of the other leading roles. I said, ‘No no no no no! There’s something very special in this woman and the relationship.’ See, that’s what I got. And when I get that, I know I can try to give it to you, and you will feel the same way that I do. And so I did it and went on about my business. And then all of a sudden I get these calls. ‘My God! That role!’”


Mrs. Watts in The Trip to Bountiful (2014)

Cicely Tyson, The Trip to Bountiful (2014)

This is a TV movie version of the stage play that Cicely Tyson won a Tony Award for.



What’s your favorite historical costume role performed by Cicely Tyson?


About the author

Trystan L. Bass

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A self-described ElderGoth, Trystan has been haunting the internet since the early 1990s. Always passionate about costume, from everyday office wear to outrageous twisted historical creations, she has maintained some of the earliest online costuming-focused resources on the web. Her costuming adventures are chronicled on her website, TrystanCraft. She also ran a popular fashion blog, This Is CorpGoth, dedicated to her “office drag.”

5 Responses

  1. Nzie

    I think I saw Miss Jane Pittman when I was a bit too young, but I do think I saw Woman Called Moses and it made an impression. I see a lot of movies I should watch. She’s iconic.

  2. M.E. Lawrence

    With all due respect to Oprah’s performance, I still wish “Beloved” could have been made with a magically younger Tyson; she would have been magnificent as Sethe. Side note: Did anyone else ever see the portrait of Tyson that was made, I think, around the time of “Sounder,” in which she’s dressed and posed as a Southern belle of the mid-19th century, crinoline and all? (Instead of wig, she’s wearing her own short Afro.) She looks dreamy and exquisite; I wish I had kept that issue of Vogue, or whatever it was.

  3. spanielpatter14

    A wonderful actress! Pittman was stellar in “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman”; a fantastic miniseries; and also in “A Woman Called Moses” and just about every role she’s ever played.

  4. Natasha Rubin

    I’d never heard of A Woman Called Moses before, and I’m interested to see it now! I’d also be interested to know how it compares with the more recent Harriet Tubman movie.

  5. Lily Lotus Rose

    Wow, this was an eye-opening WCW! For me, Cisley Tyson is one of those actors who seems to have been “old” for my entire memory! Looking back on her younger roles, was really interesting! There’s so much here I want to see. She truly is a national treasure. I know people who saw her on stage a few years ago, and they said she didn’t miss a beat! Aside from the movies I already knew about, I’m intrigued by the one with her and Vanessa Williams–The Trip to Bountiful–I’m gonna look for that one!