Beah : A Black Woman Speaks"When you spoke with Beah something happened. She was duty-bound to share her knowledge. She was an African teacher who challenged you to think about your life and demanded that you use the gifts our ancestors gave use responsibly." - LisaGay Hamilton, Writer and Director.
In 1999, actress LisaGay Hamilton sat down with activist, poet and fellow actress Beah Richards for the first in a series of frank, thought-provoking conversations. Over the next year, Richards shared the insights and truths she had gained during her celebrated, sometimes controversial career. The exclusive documentary BEAH: A BLACK WOMAN SPEAKS presents the hard-earned wisdom of this remarkable artist and activist, exploring the deep and tender relationship that developed between the two women. The film recently won the Grand Jury Prize at the AFI Film Festival.
Having worked with Beah Richards on the feature film "Beloved," LisaGay Hamilton was mesmerized by the older woman's talent and inspired by her wisdom. Two years after completion of the film, Richards became gravely ill. Hamilton felt inclined to visit her, and the relationship that ensued formed the basis for this remarkable documentary.
Hamilton shared the experience of her visit with friend and mentor Jonathan Demme, who had directed both women in "Beloved." Within days of expressing her desire to capture Richards on film, Hamilton received a digital camera in the mail, along with a note from Demme that simply read, "Do it." With Demme's unwavering support, Hamilton set out to record her encounters with Richards and an incredible journey began.
Suffering from emphysema and breathing with the aid of an oxygen concentrator, the 80-year-old freely shared her life lessons during 70 hours of interviews. Sitting Buddha-style on her bed, Richards revealed the tapestry of her life, beginning with the solid foundation laid for her by loving parents in the segregated south.
Her search to be an actress led from Vicksburg, Mississippi, to California and New York and ultimately back home again. In the process, she fought for civil rights alongside the likes of Paul Robeson and W.E.B. DuBois. Richards' poetry brought her close to black activists and Communist Party leaders William and Louise Patterson, which in turn spurred the FBI to keep a file on her from 1951 to 1972. This volatile mixture of poetry and politics helped Richards discover her true purpose. As she tells Hamilton, "It is not about you living as an actor. It is about you living as a human being."
BEAH: A BLACK WOMAN SPEAKS includes historical footage of Richards performing some of her most famous works, including the poem "A Black Woman Speaks of White Womanhood, White Supremacy and Peace"; "Paul Robeson Speaks for Me," an emotionally charged poem she wrote in high school; and "What Then Is Black...," a poem that redefines the word "black."
Richards said Mississippi left her a realist in a racist society. Confident in her African beauty, she knew the battle to confront the American or Hollywood ideal would unfortunately be long and hard. Throughout her career, Richards endured being cast primarily as maids and old women. Her first paying job as an actor came off-Broadway at age 36, when she received glorious reviews as Sister Margaret in James Baldwin's "Amen Corner" on Broadway.
Richards's career ultimately spanned more than 50 years in film, on TV and onstage. She received a supporting actress Oscar® nomination for playing Sidney Poitier's mother in 1967's "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?" Richards emotionally recalls how this joyful moment was overshadowed by the devastating assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose funeral caused a delay in the awards ceremony.
Fellow actors Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis, Whitman Mayo and Frank Silvera recall Richardsâ€™ dignity and innate ability to transcend the material she was offered. She spent a lifetime sharing the gift of acting with others; students describe her unique teaching techniques and devotion to her craft. Richards explains her mission by noting, "When a black actor has the opportunity --I don't care what the role is -- he has the chance to capture the conscience of the audience."
BEAH: A BLACK WOMAN SPEAKS reveals how Hamilton initiated Richards' last role, on the TV show "The Practice." Shortly after this performance, Richards, no longer able to care for herself independently, left her Los Angeles home of 25 years, and returned to Mississippi. Hamilton was there with her camera to capture the heartbreaking occasion. Richards' work on "The Practice" earned her a third Emmy Award®, which Hamilton delightedly accepted on Richards' behalf in her absence. The teacher and the admiring student had one final meeting in Vicksburg, Mississippi, where Hamilton gave her the Emmy®. Beah Richards died ten days later, on September 14, 2000. At the close of the documentary, Hamilton performs one last act at the request of her mentor, exemplifying Richards's commitment to the struggle for freedom into eternity.
"Americans need all the great role models we can get in this age when courageous humanist trailblazers are in short order," notes Jonathan Demme. "When a role model of Beah's magnitude finally gets her story told, the inspirational potential is a cause for celebration."
BEAH: A BLACK WOMAN SPEAKS marks the documentary directorial debut of LisaGay Hamilton, who was a longtime cast member of the hit David Kelley series "The Practice," where she also made her prime-time directorial debut. A graduate of the Tisch School of the Arts and the Julliard School of Drama, Hamilton's extensive theatre credits include "Measure for Measure," "Henry IV Parts I & II" at the New York Shakespeare Festival, and on Broadway, "The Piano Lesson"; she earned an Obie Award and Clarence Derwent Award, as well as a Drama Desk and Ovation nomination for Athol Fugardâ€™s "Valley Song." Her films include Jonathan Demme's "The Truth About Charlie" and "Beloved," Clint Eastwood's "True Crime," Campbell Scott's "Hamlet," "Palookaville," "Drunk" and "A House Divided." http://www.hbo.com/docs/programs/beah/synopsis.html