Last night, I had the privilege to attend the 2018 Governors Awards in Hollywood, Calif., and saw Cicely Tyson receive her honorary Oscar. She is the first black woman to ever win the honor.
In a career that has spanned nearly 70 years, the 93-year-old actress has starred with some of the best and the brightest in Hollywood—and she has outlived more than a few of them.
“Forty-five years ago, I was offered a movie entitled Sounder. It was the first major movie that I would have done in my career,” Tyson informed the gathered crowd at the beginning of her acceptance speech.
In that time, she’s played Jane Pittman, educator Marva Collins, Coretta Scott King, Harriet Tubman and everyone in between. She is the knowing grandmother, the sage auntie, the strong and protective mother and the long-suffering wife.
But more than the characters she has depicted in Hollywood, Cicely Tyson is our very own black national treasure. We see her and we recognize a living part of history that we want to respect and protect.
Hollywood stepped out in all its finery last night to honor veteran Hollywood publicist Marvin Levy, composer Lalo Schifrin and movie-producing power couple Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall—who along with Tyson, received their honorary Oscars for their contributions to the world of film.
Schifrin has created some of the most famous soundtrack music in Hollywood, including the unmistakable theme to Mission Impossible. Between the two of them, Marshall and Kennedy have given us the Raiders of the Lost Ark franchise, the screen version of Jason Bourne, E.T. and the movie Alive. Levy has worked closely with Steven Spielberg for years and helped promote some of his biggest films such as Schindler’s List.
But when it came time for the coronation of our Queen, I could barely contain myself. It was, after all, the main reason I was at the event.
They played a video that showed how Tyson started her career, featuring snippets of the tons of roles she has played, and giving us a look into her Academy Award-nominated role in 1972’s Sounder. Ava DuVernay delivered a passionate and heartfelt tribute to the woman who paved the way so that so many who came after could do the same things she did and more.
You could tell the entire room felt the love for Tyson in that moment.
When she took the stage to accept her award, she told the story of how a dear friend of hers predicted that she would be nominated for an Oscar for her role in Sounder. When she got the call that she had in fact been nominated for the Oscar, she called that same friend and asked him to fly from New York to Los Angeles with her and attend the event as her escort.
She did not win the award that night. She was nominated in the same category as Diana Ross—who was nominated for Lady Sings the Blued—and Liza Minelli who was nominated for Cabaret. Minelli won that night, but the experience was still a warm and pleasant memory for Tyson.
When she received the phone call from Board of Governors president John Bailey that she would receive the honorary Oscar this year, she called that same friend and left him a message sharing the good news and asking him to accompany her once again to Los Angeles.
She left him a message and said, “I want to share something with you. This time, I have it, and this time I am asking you to repeat your performance and escort me to California to accept this treasure.”
She did not hear back from him, unaware that he was ill and in the hospital. He never got her message, and he passed away two days after she got the news about the award.
That friend was Arthur Mitchell.
“I know, however, Arthur, wherever you are, that this is what you were promising me, and I want to thank you,” she said, her voice shaking.
And it is with that story that our Queen Mother wrapped us around her finger and had us at her feet as she basked in the glory of her new distinction.
She paid homage to so many women who came after her, which in and of itself was a clear indicator of the type of woman she is. She recognized the contributions of Oprah Winfrey and Whoopi Goldberg, both of whom have been seemingly snubbed for Oscars when both starred in The Color Purple.
“You know ... next month on December 19, I’m going to be 94 years old,” she said. The crowd erupted in cheers.
She smiled broadly and continued, “And I don’t know that I would cherish a better gift than this. This is the culmination of all those years of have and have-nots. And God bless you all. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.”
I was in tears by the time she got to that ending.
Whatever we have to do to protect Cicely, let’s do it. She is our gift and our treasure.
We want to keep her around for as long as possible.