Documentary manifests actress' wisdom

— LisaGay Hamilton watched herself on screen flinging the cremated ashes of actress Beah Richards over a Confederate graveyard in Mississippi, then told the SRO audience at the Museum of Tolerance about how she finally shed tears.

"I cried yesterday," she said after the recent screening. "I cried ... finally, out of joy, out of triumph, out of how wonderful it is."

It had been more than three years since Hamilton shot that scene for her documentary, "Beah: A Black Woman Speaks," premiering on HBO at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday.

Not only is it the film's concluding chapter, it's also the final defiant act of a black woman who lived unfettered.

Richards was a prolific actress and playwright who Hollywood never quite knew what to do with.

She was also a civil rights activist whose books of poetry, including the riveting "A Black Woman Speaks," inspired and challenged those seeking change -- and drew the FBI's attention.

But to Hamilton, Richards was a teacher, who, in the year before her death, provided some valuable life lessons.

Initially, Hamilton had not considered filming a documentary when she decided to visit Richards in the spring of 1999. They had met two years earlier while filming Jonathan Demme's "Beloved."

The 39-year-old actress and fledgling director was at first intimidated by Richards, probably best remembered for her Oscar-nominated performance as Sidney Poitier's mother in the 1967 film "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?"

But after learning that Richards was home recovering after a lengthy stay in the hospital, Hamilton -- who was having personal problems at the time -- visited Richards for some soul-searching.

"I was at a typical mid-30 crisis when you're having that nervous breakdown because some man has left you and all this other stuff is going on," Hamilton said, laughing. "I was in need of wisdom. So I called Beah. I remembered her being pretty deep."

Hamilton ended up getting an earful. "After I left her house, I was vibrating, and I left going ... 'What was that?"'

It was Beah Richards 101: practical lessons steeped in African traditions. And for Hamilton, these were pearls too rich to keep to herself.

So she shared her inspiring visits with Demme, and the next day, he sent her two video cameras, suggesting she tape her interviews with Richards and make the documentary.

Demme also provided two of his associates, Neda Armian and Joe Viola, to assist Hamilton in the taping of the intimate conversations, which were shot in the den of Richards' Los Angeles home.

"It felt like I was eavesdropping," said Viola, a longtime television producer and director, "because every word that Beah spoke, LisaGay interacted with her. Beah had a philosophy about acting, but it was indeed her philosophy about life, and that philosophy was truth."

Later, film editor Kate Amend came on board.

"When LisaGay described her vision to me," explained Amend, "she said, 'I don't want to do a traditional biography. I want to do something much bigger.' I knew that she wanted to do a portrait of a life. I just had no idea what a really big life that was going to be."

The daughter of a Mississippi Baptist minister, Richards was raised with a heady sense of -- and appreciation for -- her blackness and a love of the arts. Richards left the South to pursue acting in California and New York, finding roles less marginalized than in the years before World War II, but still subservient to white characters.

She began specializing in feisty characters, typically much older than her years, usually as indomitable matriarchs.

"As an artist, I was in awe of her," says actress Hattie Winston, who's briefly featured in the film, "because of the power of her presence, because of the challenges that she gave herself."

It was Richards who encouraged Hamilton at a time when the young actress was lamenting the lack of work she was being given on ABC's legal series, "The Practice."

"Every year I wanted to quit," said Hamilton, now a single mother of a year-old son. "I shared that with Beah and she said, 'It's your responsibility to stay on. You have not figured out how to make it work for you."'

Eventually, it was Hamilton who helped Richards land a guest spot on "The Practice," a role that earned Richards her second Emmy shortly before she died on Sept. 14, 2000, at 80.

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