Cicely Tyson was a national treasure. Though that phrase is often thrown around, there are few people that it applies more to than Tyson, who began her acting career in the 1950s. The inimitable thespian, who died at the beginning of the year at age 96, built her body of work portraying bright characters shrouded by the darkness of circumstance. From Bustin’ Loose (1981) and A Lesson Before Dying (1999) to How to Get Away With Murder (2014), Tyson dedicated her life to depicting the complex beauty of Black life. Culled from a career that spans five decades, these are some of the TV shows and movies that turned her into an unforgettable legend.
The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, adapted from Ernest J. Gaines’s 1971 novel of the same name, begins in 1962 as Pittman (portrayed by Tyson), a formerly enslaved woman, is celebrating her 110th birthday. When a reporter comes to interview her, she recounts her life—beginning as an enslaved girl, moving to Ohio as an adult and working as a field hand, falling in love, and trying to survive an oppressive world. The film ends as Pittman comes to terms with the demands of the civil rights movement.
Roots, based on Alex Haley’s 1976 novel, was a phenomenon when it aired: The miniseries won nine Emmy Awards, a Globe Globe Award, and a Peabody Award. The series finale is still the second-most-watched finale in the history of U.S. television. Tyson earned an Emmy Award for portraying Binta, the West African mother of the protagonist, Kunta (LeVar Burton), who’s captured by slave traders and transported to the colonies. Though Binta plays a small role, Tyson’s onscreen presence is magnificent and unforgettable.
Before Cynthia Erivo’s Academy Award–nominated turn as freedom fighter Harriet Tubman, Tyson brought her to life in a two-part miniseries. The series chronicles Tubman’s life—from being born on a plantation and experiencing unspeakable violence to escaping and becoming the conductor of the Underground Railroad. Tyson’s version of Harriet Tubman is serious, resolute, and mission-driven—focused on her calling to free as many Black people as possible. A Woman Called Moses was one of the first times Tubman’s legacy was depicted onscreen, and it had an indelible impact on every portrayal that came after.
Oprah Winfrey produced this television adaptation of Gloria Naylor’s 1982 novel, which centers around a group of Black women neighbors living in a tenement building on Brewster Place. Tyson plays Mrs. Browne, the “uppity” mother of one of the neighbors, Melanie (Robin Givens), who frowns upon the women who choose to live in a fashion that she believes dishonors Black people. Their storyline, in particular, focuses on the complex relationships that mothers and daughters sometimes have, especially when there’s class conflict.