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Cicely Tyson, pioneer for Black women on screen, dies at 96

January 29, 2021

Tyson attributed her career choices to seeking to address social issues like gender and race. She won multiple awards over the decades and remained prolific on screen well into her 80s.

Actress Cicely Tyson
Tyson turned down an array of work in the 1960s which she felt perpetuated stereotypesImage: Amanda Edwards/Getty Images for Discovery, Inc.

Cicely Tyson, known for her portrayal of strong Black women on screen, has passed away at the age of 96. Tyson's career of seven decades in Hollywood included films like Sounder and The Help.

"With a heavy heart, the family of Miss Cicely Tyson announces her peaceful transition this afternoon. At this time, please allow the family their privacy," said Larry Thompson, the manager of Tyson. The actor's death follows shortly after the publication of her memoir, "Just as I am".

An unconventional actor who broke barriers

Tyson started her career with modeling, and made her film debut in 1957 with a small role in the film, 'Twelve Angry Men'. In the 1960's Hollywood saw a rise in films focused on the exploitation of Black people, but Tyson repeatedly refused roles such as maids and prostitutes which she saw as reinforcing negative stereotypes. 

She returned to the big screen in 1972 with "Sounder," earning her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. Her performance in the 1974 television film, "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman," led to multiple Emmy award nominations. She broke several barriers for African-American women in Hollywood, receiving double Emmy awards for best actress for her portrayal of Jane Pittman.

US actress Cicely Tyson
Tyson is the first Black woman to win the Emmy award for lead actressImage: Imago/ZUMA Press/Pma

In 2016, Tyson received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the US's highest civilian honor. Two years later, she received the Academy Honorary Award at the Oscars.

"I am very selective as I have been my whole career about what i do. Unfortunately, I am not the kind of person who works only for money. It has to have some real substance for me to do it," Tyson told the Associated Press in 2013.

Tyson said that addressing issues like race and gender stereotypes was a conscious component of her career choices. "I realized very early on when I was asked certain questions or treated in a certain way that I needed to use my career to address those issues," she told People magazine in 2016.

Pauline Kael, film critic for the New Yorker, has described Tyson as an actor who was "as tough-minded and honorable in her methods as any we've got."

Tyson continued acting well into her late 80s, winning a Tony award for her role in the play The Trip to Bountiful. She was married to renowned jazz trumpeter Miles Davis late in his life, from 1981-88.

am/msh (AFP, AP, Reuters)