She’s played some incredible icons (Coretta Scott King and Harriet Tubman among them), and now Cicely Tyson has made history of her own as the first black woman to receive a Governors Award—an honorary Oscar—in tribute to her nearly 70-year career. “I don’t know that I would cherish a better gift than this,” Tyson said in her acceptance speech, referencing her 94th birthday on December 19. “This is the culmination of all those years of have and have-nots.”
This is the culmination of all those years of have and have-nots.
The prize, presented at an annual ceremony independent of the televised event, was a long time coming. In 1972, Tyson received a Best Actress nomination for her portrayal of hardscrabble sharecropper Rebecca Morgan in Sounder—though, originally, the powers-that-be believed she was “too young, too pretty, too sexy, too this, too that” for the role, Tyson has said. Instead of accepting defeat, she continued working on the Rebecca role. Six weeks later, her agent called to say she got the part. “I always knew it was mine,” Tyson said. “I was just waiting for them to find out.”
The movie was a box-office and critical success for its realistic, emotional depiction of African-American life. And Roger Ebert raved of Tyson, “It is a wonder to see the subtleties in her performance.”
Flash-forward to the star-studded Governors Awards gala: “Ms. Cicely Tyson’s getting a long overdue Oscar!” Oprah Winfrey trumpeted on social media, while showrunner Shonda Rhimes rhapsodized: “She has blazed so many trails for us.” In presenting the award, director Ava DuVernay called Tyson, “the seed for so many of us, the rose that we adore.”
Indeed, the ranks of African-Americans in Hollywood have grown enormously since Sounder hit screens. Yet back then, Tyson (most recently seen as Ophelia Harkness, mother of manipulative attorney Annalise Keating, on TV’s How to Get Away with Murder) shared her nomination with another black star, Diana Ross (Lady Sings the Blues), and the last time that happened was … never (Liza Minnelli won by the way, for Cabaret). And, to date, Halle Berry (Monster’s Ball) remains the only black woman to win Best Actress.
Hmm, hopefully, as Sam Cooke sang, a change is gonna come.