“I had experiences on the stage that I didn’t think were possible and then a strange thing happened. On the stage, I was complete and perfect, lacking no essential characteristic, nothing. The curtain came down and, ‘Who am I? Who am I?’” As Beah Richards remembers acting, she is, of course, acting again. And in her performance here, as elsewhere, she is complete and perfect, powerful, moving, and fierce. “Here” is Beah: A Black Woman Speaks, a film by LisaGay Hamilton, who recorded the actor, poet, and playwright during the last year of her life. Richards died in 2000, of emphysema, having moved from California back to her childhood home in Vicksburg, Mississippi—where she was cremated and “spread over the Confederate graveyard,” according to her wishes, so that she might “take that struggle with her into eternity.”
She took that struggle seriously. Throughout her life and career, she carried with her the “circumstances of my life as a citizen of Mississippi,” transforming them into art and wisdom. She had a “calling as a teacher,” says Hamilton, as her camera makes its way through Richards’ Los Angeles home, from foyer to kitchen to bedroom, where Richards “sits like a Buddha,” waiting to regale and school her visitors, to share in their laughter and adore their company. These moments, where Richards appears so close and clever (or sometimes irate, at a world not changing fast enough), come in between clips of a younger Richards at work, as Sidney Poitier’s mother in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? for which she earned an Oscar nomination, and also as Hamilton’s mother in Beloved, and another mother in an episode of The Practice, for which she won an Emmy.
The film traces her career and her life, as these were of a piece, her dedication to the cause of civil rights, her encounters with W.E.B. Dubois and Paul Robeson, her friendships with Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee (who have a wonderful time making fun of the oh-so-hopeful sentiment voiced by Richards’ character in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, that “love” alone is all the beautiful young interracial couple needs). But as she played mothers and maids in movies, Richards found other outlets for her brilliant talents, writing poems and plays and teaching. The film includes rarely seen footage of her performing a poem she wrote in response to Rosalee McGee‘s defense of her husband Willie, “A Black Woman Speaks of White Womanhood, White Supremacy and Peace” and another she wrote in high school, “Paul Robeson Speaks for Me,” footage that insists, like Richards always did, on the contexts for her life.