Just as it was in every scene she ever played, Beah Richards' presence is commanding and unforgettable in "Beah: A Black Woman Speaks," a documentary about one of the finest actresses of her generation. It will screen April 1 at the Crossroads Film Festival.
LisaGay Hamilton's documentary directorial debut beautifully captures the last year of the regal actress's life. Hamilton's choice not to tell a linear story was inspired, and allowed her to move back and forth between Richards' powerful telling of her own story and clips of 50 years of her performances on stage and screen, stitched together by recollections of friends and colleagues like Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis and Mississippi native Tonea Stewart.
The film's three strands twist into a poignant, elegant tapestry—Beah's life, her race against time, and the relationship between her and Hamilton.
Seventy hours of interviews were condensed to a 90-minute treasure that will leave you wanting nothing but more of this gutsy woman who chose the difficult life of an actor over life in a racist, segregated Mississippi. She said that acting was "being," and that she was "perfect" when she performed. "Had everything I needed."
She walked off with every scene, no matter how briefly she appeared on screen. Spencer Tracy became a pillar of salt during a powerful scene when she performed opposite him in "Guess Who's Coming To Dinner," a role that earned her an Oscar nomination.
Richards, who was never offered the roles she deserved, refused to play the maids and old women to stereotype. She said that "it's not about making a living as an actor," it's what actors should do with the roles they do get. She said a good actor could take a role, "no matter how trashy, and capture the audience's conscience."
"She was always, always, always the queen," Hamilton said.
Ossie Davis commented on Richards' ability to bring truth to a role ,such as her speech in "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" about how love, even interracial love in 1960s America, could conquer all. "Beah knew she was lying," he said, but she could so perfectly become the woman who was saying those words that the audience believed her.
Richards' early life was shaped by the love and pride she found in the bosom of her native Vicksburg's black community. Her father was a preacher, and she said she wished she could act like he could preach. Her mother, whom she called a beautiful woman, referring to her spirit, never wanted children, she said, because she knew how difficult it would be for them because they were black, and she had nothing to give them to make it easier. But Richards gained a strong sense of herself and her unique black beauty. Her parents used the terms "black" instead of "Negro" or "colored." She was enraged by the racism in Mississippi, however, and fled, at her mother's urging, to L.A. with only a few bucks in her pocket. "She was trying to keep me from being killed."
Richards eventually made her way to New York and started to move in theater circles that included talents like Dee and Davis and Langston Hughes. She also got involved in the Civil Rights Movement, rubbing shoulders with activists and black communists like Paul Robeson. The FBI opened a file on her. "Apparently J. Edgar Hoover thought she was going to subvert the country with her poetry," Hamilton said after a screening of the documentary in Jackson in February.
Actor, director and teacher Frank Silvera introduced Beah to "the theater of being," recognized her tremendous talent and urged her to fly. Beah flourished while working with him, and continued to write—a passion since she was a young girl. She said Jim Crow Mississippi gave her plenty to write about; she wrote the powerful poem, "Paul Robeson Speaks for Me," when she was in high school.
Richards wrote a book, a play and a book of poems called "A Black Woman Speaks"—the work that inspired the documentary's name. She was a powerful, African spirit who believed that absolutely everything was connected, Hamilton said, and she had a brilliant mind that jumped from place to place so quickly that she sometimes lost Hamilton. "Sister was so deep, I couldn't keep up with her."
Their rapport is evident in the film—Richards, the mentor/friend; Hamilton the awed student, soaking up the wisdom of a thousand years. It is also evident why she was known almost as much for her prowess as a teacher as she was an actress. Richards controls the film with her wonderful story-telling ability and her feel for the camera. She cries and laughs and applauds herself when she says something particularly profound.
Even after Hamilton had spent months with her, Richards could still surprise her. Out of the blue, she mentioned she had been married, then said, "never mind," when Hamilton asked her for more details. So Hamilton tracked her former husband down at Hampton University where he, though suffering with Parkinson's, still painted. "She blasted me," he said of Richards. "Nailed me to the wall."
Much of the documentary was shot inside the house Richards had lived in for 25 years. She was dying of emphysema and had made the difficult decision to move back to Mississippi to die, as it turns out. She spent most of her time sitting Buddha-like in her bed, reading scripts, dispensing advice and keeping in touch with loved ones.
Richards had asked Hamilton to do one last thing for her, and Hamilton performs the act at the end of the documentary as Beah's defiant laughter rang out.