GLEN WELDON, HOST:
The actress Cicely Tyson died last week at the age of 96 over a career that spanned seven decades. She brought grace, grit and gravitas to any role she played. She had just released a memoir, "Just As I Am," and had been making the rounds, doing a slew of interviews in which her intelligence, wisdom and dignity shone through.
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CICELY TYSON: You know, no matter what happened in my life, it did not deter me from reaching the goal that I had set for myself.
WELDON: I'm Glen Weldon. And today, we're looking back at the life and work of Cicely Tyson on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. So don't go away.
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WELDON: Welcome back. Joining me from Queens, N.Y., is writer, comedian and co-host of the Bad Romance Podcast, Jourdain Searles. Welcome back, Jourdain.
JOURDAIN SEARLES: Glad to be back.
WELDON: It's great to have you. Even before the glowing encomium started rolling in after her death, Cicely Tyson was a beloved and, to many, an inspiring figure. She received three Emmys and an honorary Oscar. And at the age of 88, she became the oldest person to win a Tony Award. That was for her role in a revival of "The Trip To Bountiful." Her breakthrough role, though, was the 1972 film "Sounder", which is about a family of sharecroppers in Louisiana during the Great Depression. Tyson played the mother of the family, Rebecca, and was nominated for an Academy Award for best actress for that role.
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TYSON: (As Rebecca) I skin my fingers to the bone to pick two pounds that's worth almost nothing at the commissary. And he done took 'bout half of it.
PAUL WINFIELD: (As Nathan Lee) The boy is hungry, Rebecca.
TYSON: (As Rebecca) We've been through these hard times before, Nathan Lee. And we made it.
WELDON: Now, she had a long career, a distinguished career. We can't get to everything. We can't even try. So we're just going to highlight a few favorite performances and talk about what set them apart. Now, your first pick, Jourdain, is one that a lot of people have been talking about this past week, "The Autobiography Of Miss Jane Pittman." It's a 1974 TV movie based on the Ernest J. Gaines novel in which an elderly Jane Pittman, played by Tyson in some still-impressive-looking old-age makeup, tells the story of her nearly hundred years of life. And she becomes the lens through which we view the Black American experience. Tyson plays Jane at several ages. She meets various historical figures. Now, Jourdain, playing someone at different ages is a huge acting challenge, and she kind of knocked it out of the park.
SEARLES: She did an incredible job. I watched it as a kid, and I immediately became obsessed with it 'cause I had no idea who she was before that. And I was like, this is an incredible person. I need to watch everything that she's ever been in. And, of course, it's impossible, too.
WELDON: That's a big challenge, yeah.
SEARLES: But I tried. And I think what really sticks with me, with the film - I mean, it's so expansive, you know, totally chronicling the life. But the ending scene where she drinks from the whites-only water fountain is a scene that is stuck in my head all the time. Like, her walk - just slowly just taking her time walking there. And she's just, like, walking past white people, walking past a cop. And it's just like no one's going to make this hundred-year-old woman - like, no one's going to stop her from drinking from that water fountain. It was just so triumphant to watch her do that.
WELDON: OK, so let's actually hear a bit of Cicely Tyson as Jane Pittman.
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TYSON: (As Jane Pittman) Ever ate sugar cane before?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) No, ma'am.
TYSON: (As Jane Pittman) I know you ain't never chopped none.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, laughter) No, ma'am, I haven't.
TYSON: (As Jane Pittman) Man has to chop sugar cane for a while for a living to appreciate it. Most people ain't never eat sugar cane raw today, Black or white. I worked on the Dye plantation for 12 long years, and I know what went on. I was there.
WELDON: So again, we have to remember the time. This was a 1974 TV movie. What do you think set it apart?
SEARLES: Well, I think at that point and really even now, there weren't really any narratives that specifically focused on women going through slavery and dealing with racism. Like, in a more general sense, you know, it would be, like, as a community, but, usually, men are at the center. And I think Jane Pittman was the first time that it was a woman. And, really, there isn't a ton to compare it to in film now, either.
WELDON: Yeah. You see in that performance something you're going to see in pretty much every performance, a steeliness, a resolve, a dignity, even. And your second pick is kind of a - it seems kind of like a curveball at first because it is a very different role. But again, it's that same gravitas. It's 1997 film "Hoodlum," a crime movie about the Jazz Age gang war between the Jewish Italian mafia and the gangsters of Harlem. And in this, Tyson played a Harlem crime boss, Stephanie St. Clair, also known as Madame Queen. Again, a big departure from the slave narratives that she became known for, including "Roots." She played the mother of Kunta Kinte in that. But you love this film. Why do you love this film, and why do you love this performance?
SEARLES: OK, so Stephanie St. Clair is one of the most interesting figures in, like, American crime history, New York crime history. And no one ever really talks about her. Like, you'd think that there would be a film about her. So when Cicely Tyson came out, like in this character, it was the first time I had seen her play - like, she's not even really a villain because, like, everyone respects her. But it's definitely like she's intimidating in that role. She has - like, there's such a gravity to her. And she looks intimidating, which I was so surprised to see from her that she could play that...
SEARLES: ...Because she just is always playing such kind characters most of the time. And I just loved seeing her that way. And I wish that I had seen more roles of her kind of on that register, though I feel like I have not seen "How To Get Away With Murder," but I've heard that she has, like, a similarly kind of like acidic performance there.
WELDON: Yeah, let's hear a clip from "Hoodlum." This is a scene with Cicely Tyson and Tim Roth's character, Dutch Schultz.
TYSON: (As Stephanie St. Clair) Mr. Schultz, we're not here to quarrel about your right to own your own bank. But I ask to respect my right to have me own. Comprenez-vous?
TIM ROTH: (As Dutch Schultz) Oh, yeah. I [expletive] vous.
SEARLES: I didn't know that she was going to be in the movie when I started watching it. So it was, like, a great surprise. And to see her just facing off against these actors, Tim Roth - and just to watch her be revered by all of the men in this film. Like, it's very rare for a gangster film for a woman to hold that space. And I think that it's really special that she holds that space and that everyone is scared of her in that movie.
WELDON: (Laughter). Now, there is a throughline between these two performances and her status in the Black community. Can you talk a little bit about that?
SEARLES: Yeah, Cicely Tyson is considered to be royalty in terms of Black entertainment, in terms of Black culture and everything. So I feel like in every role, she has this air of - she's, like, the mother. She's, like, all of our mothers. And, you know, in "Jane Pittman," you can see it. In "Hoodlum," you can see it. In "Diary Of A Mad Black Woman," you can definitely see it.
SEARLES: You know, in "Roots," you see it. She - when she died, it was like our mom died. The form of mourning wasn't just about her talent. It was about how much she was loved. And the way that she was cast really reflects how much she was loved because she is always cast in these roles of these revered women. Like, she very rarely plays a character that people don't like.
WELDON: And that extends to her as an actress, as a figure. I mean, she - as I said, she was universally beloved. She had kind of a late-career acting renaissance when she appeared in Tyler Perry's feature debut. Tyler Perry threw a lot of work her way over the years. But "Diary Of A Mad Black Woman" came out in 2005. Tell me about this film, and tell me about Cicely Tyson in it.
SEARLES: OK, so "Diary Of A Mad Black Woman is" - oh, God, it's interesting. It's the first Tyler Perry movie. It's messy, but I think it's a lot more tonally consistent than the films that came after that. Well, the film is about a woman who has been thrown out of her house and out of her marriage by her husband. Her husband has decided to marry his mistress. And so she's kind of, like, out on their own. And she moves in with Madea, and she's very angry. And Cicely Tyson plays her mother.
WELDON: Here's Cicely Tyson talking to Helen, played by Kimberly Elise, in a scene from Tyler Perry's "Diary Of A Mad Black Woman."
TYSON: (As Myrtle) You know, I know this man put a hurtin' on you, baby. But you got to forgive him. No matter what he does, you got to forgive him - not for him but for you.
KIMBERLY ELISE: (As Helen) Forgive him for me?
TYSON: (As Myrtle) When somebody hurts you, they take power over you. You don't forgive them - they keeps the power. Forgive him, baby. And after you forgive him, forgive yourself.
SEARLES: Her kind of, like, gentleness in that role is something that I always remember because, you know, it's - there's a lot of, like, anger going around. And her character, Myrtle, is just very quiet and very God-fearing and is really the voice of reason. It grounds it in a way. And I think that that's why Tyler kept casting her over and over again - because she's just such a grounding force in his films. And he definitely needs that.
WELDON: Yeah, yeah. I mean, she was working up until the very last minute. I think her most recent film came out last year.
WELDON: And she was working on a memoir (laughter) at the same time.
Now, if you want to check out any of these performances yourself - and we think you should - "The Autobiography Of Miss Jane Pittman" is available to stream on HBO Max. Both "Hoodlum" and "Diary Of A Mad Black Woman" are available to rent on VOD. Now, we want to know about some of your favorite Cicely Tyson performances. Tell us some that we didn't get to - justice for Ophelia and "How To Get Away With Murder." Find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter at @pchh. That brings us to the end of our show. Jourdain, thanks for being here.
SEARLES: Thanks for having me.
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