Distributed by Women Make Movies, 462 Broadway, New York, NY 10013; 212-925-0606
Produced by Neda Armian, Jonathan Demme, LisaGay Hamilton, and Joe Viola
Directed by LisaGay Hamilton
VHS, color, 90 min.
Jr. High - Adult
African American Studies, Film Studies, Poetry, Theater
Reviewed by Krista Gruber, Suffolk County Community College
Date Entered: 4/22/2004
LisaGay Hamilton lovingly directs this documentary about her friend, mentor, and “African Teacher,” Beah Richards. In Beah: A Black Woman Speaks, Hamilton combines images captured during the final months of the actress’s life with archival footage and photographs that ultimately compose a rich portrait of an extraordinary existence. She poignantly interweaves the spirited teachings of a woman seemingly guided by the ancestral wisdom she so often speaks of, with heart-wrenching images of Beah struggling with the emphysema that ultimately takes her life.
Beah Richards left her home in the segregated south with aspirations of becoming an actress. Upon arriving in Hollywood, Ms. Richards found that the few roles available to African American women consisted of mothers, mammies, and maids, quipping that during the span of her career she has played just about “everybody’s mother.” Although race limited the acting choices available to Beah, all those interviewed in the film seem to support friend Ossie Davis’ assertion that “she knew how to be a queen, although she might be wearing a maid’s garments.”
In addition to portraying roles on stage and screen, Ms. Richards fiercely advocated racial justice. She traveled in circles of civil rights luminaries such as W.E.B. DuBois, Paul Robeson, and Louise Patterson, with whom Beah forged a significant friendship and eventually joined in New York. Beah fused her passion for justice with poetry and eventually produced the award winning poem of the Chicago Peace Congress of 1951: “A Black Woman Speaks…Of White Womanhood, Of White Supremacy, Of Peace. “ Beah’s remarkably moving recitation of the piece in 1975, along with the sassy, humorous, and defiant delivery of her poem “Wanna Bet?” are genuine moments of brilliance.
Throughout Beah, Richards speaks to Hamilton about the strength she derived from her parents and African American community back home in Vicksburg, Mississippi. It is from them them, Beah says, that she learned the meaning of love, the importance of the ancestor, unity, and the cyclical nature of life. Hamilton subtly and masterfully emphasizes the extent to which these beliefs truly governed Beah Richards’ life. From her support of the African American Community she so passionately loved, to sharing her “ancient wisdom” with future generations, Ms. Richards conducted herself with great strength and integrity.
This remarkable tenacity ultimately renders the scenes depicting Beah cloistered in her den, struggling to breathe with the help of an oxygen concentrator and dozens of medications, all the more heartbreaking. Beah states that she has won every battle she has ever fought, except for the one with emphysema, illustrating the powerlessness of even the strongest soul to continue to inhabit a failing body. Despite Beah’s death, Hamilton’s film, in the spirit of the African oral tradition, allows each of us the opportunity to benefit from the wisdom of a most impressive soul. As we watch Ms. Hamilton scatter Beah Richards’ ashes over the confederate cemetery in Mississippi, as per her “mischievous” request, we realize that as she so often did in life, Beah still has the last laugh. Beah: A Black Woman Speaks is highly recommended for junior high through adult audiences.
- Miami International Film Festival Audience Award
- AFI Film Festival Grand Jury Prize