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Issue 1767 (PDF)
The student newspaper of Imperial College London

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Remembering Cicely Tyson: The Marva Collins Story

In honour of the late Cicely Tyson, film contributor Eva Borras takes a look back at one of the star's most iconic roles



in Issue 1767

Released in 1981 by Hallmark Hall of Fame, The Marva Collins Story tells the real life experience of Marva Collins, portrayed by Cicely Tyson, an African-American teacher living in Chicago with her husband Clarence, portrayed by Morgan Freeman, and her children.

After trying to improve the Chicago Public School System by expressing her concerns in regular staff meetings, Marva gets no support from her colleagues to better the way students are being motivated to reach their full potential in their studies. From the first minute she appears, it is evident she treats her entire class of children with much more enthusiasm than the rest of the teachers. Even in the midst of a false fire alarm she is able to keep her students calm in comparison to the chaos caused in the rest of the school behind her classroom door.

The film progresses with Collins deciding to open her own school—‘Westside Preparatory School’—in 1975 on the second floor of her home with the help of Clarence. The first students included her daughter Cindy, son Patty and some neighbourhood children like Eddie and Tina that were labelled as learning-disabled by the school they attended. As the audience we quickly witness her approach to teaching that lead to students engaging in class; positive discipline, especially to address misconduct. Additionally, students had opportunities in a variety of subjects, from reading and memorizing poetry that would later be said out loud in class to calculus.

Despite the struggles to gain the students trust at the start, her consistency in positive messages such as ‘You are your biggest asset’ gives the belief to the children that they can succeed and become whoever they want to if they try and commit. By the end, Marva succeeds in achieving recognition for her school and expands to include more students, as well as obtaining a permit recognized by the state. One day, the entire class is tested and to everyone but Collins’ surprise, every single one of the students achieved at least five grade levels higher than the one assigned at their age. The film closes by explaining the school expanded to 200 students with a waiting list of over four times that number.

In my eyes, the overall message of this piece, which makes it more inspirational knowing it comes from a real story, is the importance of building a safe positive space between teacher and student. The Marva Collins Story is recommended for anyone involved in any way with education, regardless of their role. This movie outlines the improvements that the education of a students can have if a teacher rewards positive achievements, rather than punishing for mistakes. Unfortunately, Marva passed away in 2015 but her life-lasting impact on students will remain forever.

During a 60-year career, Cicely carefully chose her roles to represent strong and realistic non-stereotypical roles for black women, shaping the course of history

Undeniably, this story would not have been so authentic if it wasn’t for the brilliant Cicely Tyson who sadly passed away recently. During a 60-year career, Cicely carefully chose her roles to represent strong and realistic non-stereotypical roles for black women, becoming the first black woman to take on a main role in a TV drama and shaping the course of history.

I believe it is important to call attention to some film roles Cicely interpreted remarkably among others such as Rebecca in Sounder (1972), Sipsey in Fried Green Tomatoes (1991), and Constantine in The Help (2011), in all of which she absolutely nailed the part.

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