Cicely Tyson (1924-2021):
”I have learned not to allow rejection to move me.”
I was just 19 years old when I was emotionally crippled by a film titled Sounder (1972). Embarrassed, I had to be the last to leave the theatre as I was weeping myself into a headache. It was a terrifyingly moving experience. I am still destroyed by stories of racial injustice, plus dog stories send me over the edge. I recommend this excellent film, but I warn you: Dog Stories All Have The Same Ending.
Sounder takes place in 1933 Louisiana. The Morgans are a loving and strong family of African-American sharecroppers. The father, played by gay actor Paul Winfield tries to teach his son (Kevin Hooks) to be a man and survive in the Great Depression with their dog, Sounder. But, the father is imprisoned for a year after stealing food to feed his starving family. On his way to visit his father, the son discovers a school, where a kind but firm teacher takes him in and teaches him about important Black Amercian figures in history. The son is desperate to go to school, but when his father is released a maimed man, he must choose between an education that can give him a better life or staying home to help his father.
Sounder is directed by Martin Ritt. It received Academy Award nominations for Winfield and Tyson, plus Best Film and Best Adapted Screenplay. It was a favorite with the critics, a box-office success, and one of those rare films about the black experience to have a major crossover into the mainstream market, and a contrast to the tide of blaxploitation movies released at the time.
Tyson is a wonder in Sounder. There are such subtleties in her performance. She shows strength and intelligence. We see her character dealing with the white power structure, and her behavior is born of cynicism and necessity. She says what white folk want to hear in order to get what she wants to get.
Sounder is a story of love, loss, anger, and hope. Not many movies deal with even one of those subjects with such honesty or power. There is the hope that the school will free their bright and capable son from the dead end of sharecropping; hope of the teacher, who represents the Southern growth of Black Pride and Black Studies; and, of course, the young boy’s hope.
When it opened in theatres, Sounder was attacked for being “liberal”. I don’t think so. I think it is to be taken as a story about one black family and its struggle. I suppose it is a “liberal” film, if you consider that liberalism stands for individual rights, including Civil Rights and Human Rights, democracy, secularism, gender equality, racial equality, internationalism, freedom of speech, freedom of the press and freedom of religion. I am not sure why liberalism is now a bad word. Sounder stands for a lot more than that, plus we live in such illiberal times. Sounder is a reminder of former dreams. It’s not surprising that the boy in the film reminded Coretta Scott King of her husband. Ritt (1914 –1990) was one of the best American filmmakers and he made Sounder a serious and ambitious project.
Tyson has had career spanning more than six decades, known for her portrayal of strong African-American women. She has received three Emmy Awards, a Screen Actors Guild Award, a Tony Award and an honorary Oscar.
Having appeared in minor film and television roles early in her career, Tyson’s portrayal of the title role in the television film The Autobiography Of Miss Jane Pittman (1974) won her much praise, and won her two Emmy Awards and a BAFTA Award.
Tyson continues to act in film and on television in the 21st century. She played Constantine Jefferson in the film The Help (2011) and Ophelia Harkness in How To Get Away With Murder since the show’s inception in 2014, for which she was nominated for an Emmy four times.
She also works in theatre. She received a Drama Desk Award for her performance Off-Broadway in Moon On A Rainbow Shawl (1964). In 2013, she had the lead role in the Broadway play The Trip To Bountiful, winning a Tony, the Outer Critics Award, and a Drama Desk Award.
Tyson received a Kennedy Center Honor in 2015, and in 2016, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama, the highest civilian honor in the United States.
Tyson was discovered by a photographer for Ebony magazine and became a popular fashion model. Her first acting role was on the NBC series Frontiers Of Faith in 1951. She had her first stage role in 1950 and her first film role in 1956, but she went on to do more television work, including the celebrated series East Side/West Side, becoming the first Black woman to star in a television drama and she was in the soap opera The Guiding Light. In 1961, Tyson was in the original cast of French playwright Jean Genet‘s (they share a birthday) The Blacks, which ran Off-Broadway for 1,408 performances. She appeared in Roots, a miniseries watched by more than half of the U.S. population, the largest viewership ever attracted by any type of television series.
I’m trying to impress on how significant Sounder was in its time. 1972 (I know, none of you were born yet) was an especially amazing year for film: The Godfather, Cabaret, Pink Flamingos, Lady Sings The Blues, Super Fly, Deliverance, The Poseidon Adventure. At the Oscars, history is made when, for the first time, three Black actors were nominated for lead acting Oscars: Diana Ross for her film debut in Lady Sings The Blues, and Winfield and Tyson for Sounder. This wouldn’t happen again until 2002, when Denzel Washington (Training Day) won over Will Smith for Ali and Halle Berry (Monster’s Ball) became the first and still only Black woman to win Best Actress.
Dorothy Dandridge was the first Black woman to be nominated in that category. She was nominated for Carmen Jones (1954), but to this day, Ross and Tyson are the only two Black actors to be nominated for Best Actress in the same year until 2020 when Andra Day and Viola Davis were nominated. It is a testament to the quality of the films that year, that they were nominated for two very different films and two very different performances.
Lady Sings The Blues is a big, splashy musical biopic, sort of about singer Billie Holiday but really designed as a star vehicle for Ross. The film coincided with a bestselling soundtrack album. In his review, Roger Ebert wrote that it was one of the great performances of 1972.
While Ross’s performance was big and melodramatic, Tyson was a wonder of subtleties. At the peak of the Blaxploitation films movement, Sounder was a surprise hit. Ross and Tyson faced stiff competition from Liv Ullman in The Emigrants; Maggie Smith in Travels With My Aunt, directed by gay director George Cukor; and of course, Liza Minnelli for Cabaret. Ross was the front runner that year, but it was one of the toughest years, one of the fiercest years in Oscar history.
Ross only scored one Oscar nomination in her acting career. Minnelli never again had the success of Cabaret. Tyson had been acting in plays, film, and on television since the early-50s, but Sounder was a magic moment in Tyson’s career; she only went on to greater work.
Tyson first dated jazz trumpeter Miles Davis in the 1960s, while he was still married. Davis used a photo of Tyson for the cover of his 1967 album, Sorcerer. In 1967, Davis told the press that he intended to marry Tyson in March 1968 after his divorce was finalized, but he married singer Betty Davis that September. Tyson and Davis were back together in 1978 and they got married in 1981 in a ceremony conducted by Atlanta mayor Andrew Young. Davis’ volatile temper and infidelity got the best of this marriage. Davis later said that Tyson saved his life and helped him overcome his drug addiction. She filed for divorce in 1988, three years before Davis died.