The groundbreaking show that helped launch a mini-series craze, “Roots,” based on the novel by Alex Haley, is one of the most-watched series in television history, with an estimated 100 million people tuning in for the finale alone. Tyson frequently said that no matter what other parts she took, people would always know her as Binta, her “Roots” character. As the mother of Kunta Kinte, Tyson had only a few scenes, but they were essential for laying the groundwork of the story, which helped make the ugliness of slavery real for a mass audience.
‘Saturday Night Live’ (1979)
Before anyone could accuse Tyson of prestige-TV humorlessness, she poked fun at her own image during her stint as the first Black woman to host “Saturday Night Live.” Because of the show’s lack of diversity at the time, this meant she shared a lot of sketches (and a monologue) with the cast’s only Black member of the time, Garrett Morris (who also did a Tyson impersonation). In their best bits, they jokingly bicker about racial issues — the Token Minority Window-Dressing Act, the Black Resentment Drama Workshop. Bonus: Tyson sings!
‘Fried Green Tomatoes’ (1991)
As Sipsey, Tyson turns out to be the secret weapon in a film that’s ostensibly about the relationships between other women — a story of love and friendship between Idgie (Mary Stuart Masterson) and Ruth (Mary-Louise Parker), as told by Ninny (Jessica Tandy) to Evelyn (Kathy Bates), who then becomes inspired to change her own life. Sipsey is the maternal figure for her own family as well as for a white one, and Tyson gives the character a quiet ferocity that may surprise you. It certainly surprises the local Klansmen.
‘The Help’ (2011)
In this popular adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s 2009 novel, Tyson has to fight for attention in a cast heavy with celebrated (and Oscar-nominated) competition. She succeeds in the end with her unforgettable portrayal of Constantine, the beloved Black maid and nanny who raised the white girl Skeeter (Emma Stone), only to be tragically cast aside. Despite Tyson’s brief time onscreen, her character looms large throughout the film — and has broken your heart by the end.