Legendary Actress Cicely Tyson Turns 95 Today! The Roles That Define Her Career and One That Resonates With Youth

Cicely Tyson is a living example of the tale that “black don’t crack.” The legendary actress turns 95-years-old today and remains one of the top billing actresses of our time. Ms. Tyson is booked and busy and shows that age is just a number. The map that she set forth has laid the path for some of the greatest black actresses of today, including women like Viola Davis, Kerry Washington and Taraji P. Henson who all held the lead roles in prime time shows throughout the past decade. She is an icon in the industry and the godmother of  Tyler Perry’s son. In celebration of Ms. Tyson’s continuous legacy, here’s a look back at her a few of her most profound roles throughout her career. 

Cicely Tyson
Cicely Tyson 2017 | Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images for ELLE

Sounder (1972)

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Her role was relatively small but it was a foreshadow of the greatness that was to come. Based on the children’s book of the same title, Sounder chronicles the story of  a sharecropper family enduring  poverty and hunger during the Great Depression. Ms. Tyson warmed  two awards – the National Board of Review Award and the National Society of Film Critics for her work. She was also nominated for an Oscar as Best Actress for her role as the mother/matriarch of the family. 

The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1974)

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In the role that earned her an Emmy Award, The Autobiography Of Miss Jane Pittman is considered Ms. Tyson’s breakout role. The CBS movie told the story of a woman who was born into slavery on a Louisiana plantation – only to survive and ultimately become a central part of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s. She showcased her acting chops by portraying the lead character from young adulthood into old age. She told the Hollywood Reporter in a 2019 interview why the role was significant to her, saying, “I never knew any of my grandparents,” she said. “And to me, Jane was the grandparent who might have been.”

Roots (1977)

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The groundbreaking mini series shook American households by telling the story of Kunta Kinte, an African native who was sold into the slave trade after being abducted from his village and taken to the U.S. Ms. Tyson starred as Kinte’s mom, Binta. She recalled how she prepared for the role when speaking with Oprah Winfrey 40 years after the series premiered. “I met Alex Haley after he finished writing the book and we spent a lot of time together,” she said, “Because all I have to do is find someone who has something to say that will enrich my life and they can’t get rid of mex And so, I was given the role of Kunta Kinte’s mom.” She also spent time in Africa on a personal journey to delve into her character. 

Madea’s Family Reunion (2006)

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A large gap between where she started and where she is now but her role in Madea’s Family Reunion gave a much needed lesson to the millennials of today. As Aunt Myrtle, Ms. Tyson gave a proud lesson on relationships when she gave a word of advice her niece who was secretly battling domestic violence. “Love is many things, “she began. “It’s varied. One thing it is not and can never be is unsure.” Another thought provoking scene was her character scolding the younger generation in her family for their inappropriate disposition in front of their elders and her demand for change. It went down as one of the most iconic scenes in a Tyler Perry film.  

Ms. Tyson has led a life full of purposeful work. Happiest of birthdays. You look not a day over 50!