A correction was made to this review on Nov. 18, 2003.
On the surface, “Beah: A Black Woman Speaks” is a record of the graceful, seemingly indomitable actor Beah Richards during the final 11 months of her life. Underneath, however, docu’s an emotional and sensitive portrait of an artist-activist who became especially iconic to generations of black thesps and whose own rise charts a model of striking self-will. After big screen preem at AFI Los Angeles (where it nabbed jury docu prize) and tube preem on HBO in February, offshore cable and select theatrical markets could find a niche for this compelling tribute.
Pic is appropriately the work of a younger actor in the Richards stamp, LisaGay Hamilton, who makes a fluid transition from her long-running gig on “The Practice” to filmmaker. Two years after performing with Richards in Jonathan Demme’s “Beloved,” Hamilton learned that the aging actor was suffering from acute emphysema, and decided to check in on her.
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It quickly became clear to Hamilton that Richards was dying and that someone needed to get her life story on the record. Demme proved crucial at this early stage, supplying Hamilton with a small vid camera and backing it up with the support of his production company, Clinica Estetico. The spare first-person v.o. is perfectly measured to give a full sense of the project’s personal nature (“Beah,” Hamilton states, “possessed ancient wisdom that would change my life forever”) without intruding on the mission to relate Richards’ rich life.
After a brief intro showing Richards in a feisty spirit and establishing her friendship with Hamilton, pic interweaves a chronological bio with updates on Richards’ condition during the production, which ran from November 1999 to her death in September 2000. The back and forth structure creates an uncommonly emotional effect, not only from seeing Richards’ stark physical decline, but from hearing how her mind and spirit remained as forthright and intact during filming as they were in the past, evidenced by a large cache of archival footage and stills.
Praising her father for passing on a “primordial” African heritage and her mother for insisting on the family being called “black” rather than “colored” or “Negro,” Richards recalls a supportive upbringing in her Vicksburg, Miss., hometown, where she quickly demonstrated a knack for performing and poetry. College classmates recall her as both “beautiful” and “stand-offish,” and she soon dropped out, moving to California with, she claims here, $10 in her pocket.
Hamilton clearly took the hint from Richards’ recollections, and completed the story with dozens of interviews, ranging from former San Diego Old Globe Theater artistic director Craig Noel (who describes a jack-of-all-trades woman who could act in, design and write plays) to Marylouise Patterson (whose radical parents befriended and took in Richards in New York). Author Gerard Horne provides some vivid context, noting that Richards’ big city friends in Los Angeles and Gotham — Louise Patterson, Paul Robeson, W.E.B. DuBois –brought her into the epicenter of black cultural life in the ’40s and ’50s, and helped launch her fine mini-careers as poet, public speaker and civil rights activist.
“Beah” is shot through with intelligence, never foregrounding her movie career (highlighted by her Oscar nom for “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”) as a way of pandering to auds, but instead placing it within a larger line of work which included published verse, solo performance (“A Black Woman Speaks”) and Los Angeles theater collaborations with Frank Silvera (James Baldwin’s “The Amen Corner”) and C. Bernard Jackson at the Inner City Cultural Center. Relative paucity of her stage work on film is yet another reminder of the necessity for theater productions to create audio-visual recordings for posterity.
Perhaps by osmosis, Hamilton becomes as good a storyteller as the consistently mesmerizing Richards. When her subject doesn’t want to speak about her ex-husband, Hugh Harrell Jr., Hamilton finds him herself. With Hamilton’s prodding, Richards lands a guest spot on “The Practice,” and wins her last Emmy in the process — mere months before she moves out of her Los Angeles home and dies in Vicksburg. A supposed view of an elderly artist in decline suddenly becomes a picture of triumph.
Economy vid lensing works well for the personal interplay between younger and older actor, while archival work and Kate Amend’s editing lift pic to an exemplary level.