The Dallas Examiner
The portrayal of African Americans in television and movies has always been instrumental in shaping the household of Black families. From Hattie McDaniels to Viola Davis, positive representation of Black Americans has been a long-standing fight against stereotypical roles.
During Black History Month, one of those legendary Black actors who paved the way for the film stars of today was celebrated in South Dallas. Two-time Emmy award winner Cicely Tyson was acknowledged for her historical filmography Feb. 22 at the St. Philip’s School and Community Center. She also participated in a live conversation with former CNN journalist Soledad O’Brien.
Tyson’s journey to the big screen hasn’t been easy. Growing up in Harlem, New York, with immigrant parents and five siblings rooted in Christian beliefs, the entertainer had to push through criticism from her religious mother and the obstacles thrown at her in a predominantly White industry.
At a young age, Tyson said she moved out of her mother’s home to a close friend’s house due to her mother’s disapproval of her acting dream. No matter what barriers stood in her way she preserved with her newfound independence, especially after landing her first role in a play, Dark of the Moon.
“I am a person who thrives on adversity. I’ve never allowed it to stop me from doing what I felt strongly about,” she asserted. “I don’t succumb to it. I thrive on it.”
Tyson’s body of work is extensive and highly respected from roles in Emmy award-winning television film The Autobiography of Jane Pittman to Golden Globe Award-winning film Roots. One of the most impressive attributes about the illustrious film star is her ability to avoid roles that compromise her image and feed into stereotypes.
“One of the things I’ve never done was work for money,” she proclaimed. “You cannot pay me enough to do a role for money. The thing that I am most proud of today is that I can look at a piece of work that I have done and not be ashamed of it.”
During the moderated dialogue, one of St. Philip’s alum, who was an aspiring actor, asked the leading lady about her script reading process and how she secured respectable roles.
“I read the script innumerable times because I want to know why I am in that story,” she explained. “When I find out proficiently why I am in that story, then, I begin to work on the character.”
Although her career has been filled with amazing accolades and recognition, Tyson said one of the most humbling moments in her life was the moment she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor, from Barack Obama last year.
“To this day, I am still numb. I still can’t believe that happened,” she professed. “No matter what I did, I never felt that I would come face-to-face with the head of the country, and here I am standing in front of the President of the United States while he puts this Medal of Honor around my neck. It’s not something I can describe.”
As time changes, the country has been up in arms after the induction of the Trump administration and recent actions such as the Muslim ban and repealing of Obamacare. Over the past year, race relations have become a very controversial topic that has revolved around violent and unexpected acts.
“I feel like it is a very frightening time,” Tyson said. “I sense it everywhere I go because everything about our lives is uncertain. We have no idea what it is going to be like six months from now.”
Even though things are more tense, the legendary actress advises that everyone in the community help each other and place their energy in speaking out against certain issues in order to retain peace and hope in their society.
“You can’t help everybody, but you can help one body,” she said. “If you can help that one body navigate life, you have done something, and I made it a point that I will focus my energy on the issues that I have involved myself in.”
Before closing the event, a young student asked Tyson how she was able to juggle her acting career with the issues surrounding her during the Civil Rights Movement. She answered that through her work, she was able to effectively deliver a message to people during that time, such as in Genet’s provocative 1961 play, The Blacks.
The play was a very daring production featuring well-known actors such as Louis Gossett Jr., James Earl Jones and Maya Angelou. The piece was so shocking to the point where some audience members were carried out of the theater due to its content, according to Tyson.
“We did one meaningful piece that dealt with what was going on at the time,” she said. “It was a very exciting piece because it told the truth about the nature of race relations in America. We felt in doing that play we were contributing what we could towards the Civil Rights Movement.”