Actress Beah Richards, born Beulah Elizabeth Richardson – also a respected poet and political activist – will forever be remembered for her Oscar-nominated role in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” – the landmark 1967 film about interracial marriage.
And while she would be cast as the family matriarch several times throughout her long career, her portrayal as the mother of a distinguished Black doctor, John Prentice (Sidney Poitier), engaged to the daughter of a crusading white publisher, would confirm the depths of her theatrical prowess.
Ironically, as we learn in a 2003 award-winning film now streaming on HBO Max, “Beah: A Black Woman Speaks,” when the film debuted, theaters in her hometown of Vicksburg, Mississippi, refused to show it because of its controversial subject matter.
The documentary, written and directed by actress LisaGay Hamilton, chronicles the life of Richards – long remembered as one destined to succeed in the arts by all who knew her – from those who met her as a youth to actors with whom she eventually worked including Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee.
Davis, in describing his friend, said, “What I remember most about her was the majesty of her authenticity. She would always say that she was up to the challenge of building on the capacity of what was given to Black actors – whatever was offered.”
Hamilton, who played Richards’ daughter in the film “Beloved,” recalled that while working on the movie, she said very little to Beah because she felt so “intimidated by her mere presence.”
Tragically, two weeks after Hamilton concluded filming her friend, Beah Richards died (Sept. 14, 2000) at the age of 80 in her beloved birthplace of Vicksburg.
But Beah’s light would not be extinguished – at least not that quickly.
Following its completion, the documentary, brilliantly written, masterfully directed and infused with beautiful imagery, eventually went on to win the Documentary Award at the AFI Los Angeles International Film Festival in 2003 and a Peabody Award in 2004.
As a writer, Richards wrote the verse performance piece “A Black Woman Speaks” – a collection of 14 poems in which she suggests that while white women were enslaved by white men, they played an important role in oppressing women of color. The play’s first performance was in 1950 for the organization Women for Peace, a white women’s organization in Chicago.
Throughout her life, Richards would find formidable strength and power in her dark skin, through the spirits of her African ancestors as explained by her father and in the love and support of her family and community.
She said that as a child, hers was the only family who referred to themselves as Black. It would have a lasting effect on her life.
“Everyone else was mostly ‘colored’ – some called themselves ‘Negroes.’ But my father, who was a talented preacher with the gift to speak and sing his messages in ways that I’ve never come close, made us proud to be Black,” she said.
Included below are some of her lasting thoughts which remain with us forever as shared by Richards in the documentary.
“What then is Black that it should be redefined? It is the womb of infinity out of which all things come and to which all things return … from its deep down comes healing sleep … from its infinite reach comes the light of day – black plague, black list, black market, notwithstanding.”
“An amazing thing happened in Mississippi,” said Richards who matriculated at Dillard University but left before graduating – dissatisfied by the way her instructors wanted their students to embrace the ways of the dominant society while forsaking their own culture.
“I learned love. And we must reintroduce that kind of love in our families so we can see our history without the lies. We’ve seen it through Charlie’s point of view – now we need to see it through ours.”
“I refused to give up. In the end, I always won – always. Only this illness [emphysema] got me. But before this, I never had a battle that I hadn’t won.”
“As an actor, we must make the most of the opportunity that we’re given – the opportunity to catch the conscience of the audience no matter what the role. As long as we’re playing a human being, we have the opportunity to make [the audience] remember.”
“The world needs us [that is Blacks] too. The world needs us to create it and needs our input. It needs to hear what we have to say. And I know that the last word has not been spoken.”
Beah Richards wore many hats: actress, poet, writer, director, musician, teacher, activist. Yet, whatever hat she wore, she never gave up on herself or her heritage and her people.
The documentary stands as a poignant testimony of love from Hamilton, an actress-turned-director, to her instructor and friend.
Hamilton, who scattered Beah’s ashes on the Confederate Battlefield per Richards’ request, said her greatest regret remained not telling her mentor how much she meant to her.
“I never told her how much I loved her – my great African teacher,” Hamilton said. “And yet, even in death, she still teaches me – reminding me that I am perfect. Perhaps not realized but perfect. And so, while I scattered her ashes on that field, I wept with joy.”