Trying to put into words just how impressive of a career Cicely Tyson left behind isn’t entirely possible for one short article, but remembering her for a few of the more notable roles she performed is definitely possible. As the years roll on we’re going to keep losing the talented and legendary names that have been a part of the entertainment industry for years on end, and those that have really only started to blossom, but the point isn’t that we lament their loss, it’s that we remember what they gave when it comes to keeping their memories alive. Cicely is one of the many older actors that was remembered fondly by a lot of people simply because when she showed up it was a reason to smile and appreciate what she’d done. Even if a person had no idea who she was they would likely remember her from one movie or TV show after a single viewing simply because she put what she had into the role and made people believe in that character. That’s the mark of a great actor, as those that can convince the audience of their sincerity are often those that are able to be remembered by the fans and those that will be held up as the shining examples of what it really means to be a part of show business.
Cicely’s career stretches back to the 50s, but for those of us that remember her from other roles that she made great, it’s easier to recall the actress when she was already a bit older as she was in Fried Green Tomatoes as Sipsey, one of the POC’s that worked at the Whistlestop Cafe. She wasn’t a huge part of the story but she was an important part since like several of the other supporting characters she ended up being vital to the overall plot. Sipsey was a kindly older woman that was stern but motherly to pretty much everyone that she cared for and was definitely protective of those that she felt were her responsibility. As one can imagine though, in the movie the time period was still set back in the day when POC’s weren’t treated that kindly save by those that didn’t cotton to the societal norms of the day. While the white folks in such movies might be seen as ‘white saviors’ the fact is that there were plenty of Caucasians that didn’t agree with slavery, even in the deep south where it was most prominent at times, and would treat POC’s with far more respect. Sipsey was one individual that knew her worth and didn’t hide the fact since she did what she felt was necessary and was in turn was a great part of the story.
Another great part of her career came from the movie Hoodlum, as she took on the role of Stephanie St. Clair, who was a real person whose story was loosely told in the movie, along with everyone else’s. The real Saint Clair was indeed involved in the numbers racket and she did take on Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson as her enforcer, but at some point, she turned the numbers racket over to him as she was going straight, so it wasn’t as controversial as the movie makes it out to be. But during the movie, it’s made clear that she’s a woman to be listened to and obeyed since the real individual came up on her own and made her way without any serious help that she didn’t set up, to begin with using kickbacks and bribes to the right people. In short, Saint Clair was the type of ambitious individual that knew how to talk to people and how to buy them off, but being black and being a woman made it that much tougher back in her day since the numbers racket was dominated by men, and outside of Harlem a POC had a much rougher time as well quite often. But the manner in which she played this role was still quite impressive since it was one of the best in the movie.
One role that managed to win her a great deal of attention was another that’s kind of troubling simply because it speaks once again of the troubles that POC’s have had over the years and how it’s supposed to make the lot of us feel no matter that we can’t do anything to remedy the past. Her role in The Help as Constantine was heart-breaking since it outlined the idea that so many women of color looked after so many young white children and were then tossed aside or forced to keep working for the same family rather than find other employment. The idea of ‘owning’ anyone is abhorrent beyond belief, but the idea of simply tossing someone out of your life after all they’ve done simply because another person with different values says to, that was hard to watch. But Cicely did manage to win a great deal of notice for this role, and she played it beautifully. She’s a talent that everyone is going to miss and for good reason, but she’s earned her rest after so long, and her memory will stick around for some time to come. Rest in peace ma’am, you’ve certainly earned it.
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