Actress Cicely Tyson was still reeling from two significant events in her life when she walked into a room full of religion press at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills, Calif.
First was the death of her colleague and friend Ossie Davis, whose passing at age 87 had occurred only hours earlier.
Second was her trip to Thailand to help with tsunami relief; in fact, she had just flown 19 hours back from Thailand to California in order to promote her newest movie, “Because of Winn-Dixie.”
She spoke in hushed tones about the devastation she witnessed in Southeast Asia. Long known for her humanitarian work, the 71-year-old is helping rebuild a school that had just been completed before the tsunami destroyed it.
“I’ve always maintained that any kind of celebrity that I have acquired through my career was just to prepare me for something else,” said Tyson. The Harlem native earned an Oscar nomination for 1972’s “Sounder” and won an Emmy for her portrayal of a former slave in the 1974 TV movie “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.”
Tyson said the most important thing to know is simply this: “To do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
“You get only what you give in life,” she continued, “and that’s something that’s important.” That philosophy has prompted Tyson’s involvement in a host of issues through the years. In addition to chairing UNICEF, Tyson has worked with the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, Archbishop Tutu Peace Foundation, Women’s Campaign Fund and numerous other organizations.
“We have become so self-centered, it’s all about me, me, me, me, me–especially the younger generation,” said Tyson. “You do not at all think of the effect of things that you do on people.”
“If we just every now and then would remember that,” she added, “we’d have more communication and greater understanding of one another.”
Tyson’s “Winn-Dixie” co-star and Oscar winner Eva Marie Saint echoed those thoughts.
Saint, now 80, said she was drawn to the story about a girl who breathes life back into a small town for what it illuminates about the human condition. A lot of that has to do with bringing different generations together.
In the movie, Saint and Tyson’s characters mentor the girl, played by AnnaSophia Robb. Bringing unlike characters together—and making them understand some of what others are going through—was a key to the script.
That script, adapted by Joan Singleton from the novel by Kate DiCamillo, even lured popular singer Dave Matthews, who plays a mysterious loner befriended by the girl.
Matthews’ twin 3-year-old daughters partly accounted for his interest in the family friendly film. But like Tyson and Saint, he was struck by the story’s theme of bringing people together.
“What I liked about it was that there’s a lot of common ground between very different people,” said Matthews, who was born in South Africa and spent part of his youth there during apartheid. “And common ground for me is the most important thing—rather than our differences.”
“Though occasionally in my life I stray aside from that, my most profound philosophy is one of believing in things that bring us together,” Matthews added. “And that was a central theme in this film for me.”
Matthews cited loneliness, fear, faith and hope as ideas that can connect human beings with each other.
“This girl, Opal—AnnaSophia’s character—teaches all these people about that common place that we have, and it’s a beautiful lesson,” said Matthews. “All these lonely people, in some ways, have all lost their way, and she brings them together and with nothing but love—simple love—and hope.”
Matthews said his mother is “a spiritual person” who raised him and his three siblings to treat others as Opal’s character does. The Matthews family, in fact, was involved with the Quaker church, but he has said he no longer adheres to an organized religion (telling USA Weekend magazine in 1999 that he is “not a card-carrying member of the Quaker church”).
As any fan of the Dave Matthews Band can attest, however, some ideals and stories of the Christian faith have stayed with the 38-year-old singer-songwriter—and actor.
“Kindness was what she raised us to believe was the most important quality—respect and kindness,” said Matthews of his mother.
“I’m trying to reconcile the world in combination with that philosophy—that respect and kindness could really save us,” he added. “There have been great purveyors of that philosophy who have used different words to describe it, but I think Christ was probably the most famous of them—that respect and kindness will win the day if the day ever came.”
“It may or may not in my time, but I’ll still stick by it as a not unreasonable philosophy.”
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
The movie’s official Web site is here. “Because of Winn-Dixie” opens nationwide Feb. 18.