New documentary honors Beah Richards

Published 12:00 am Monday, February 2, 2004

Teresa Prince Williams, left, talks with Lisa Gay Hamilton, director of “Beah: A Black Woman Speaks,” a documentary about actress Beah Richards, while Hamilton signs autographs for guests Sunday at the Vicksburg Convention Center.(Jon Giffin The Vicksburg Post)

[2/2/04]Life was always a struggle for a young, black woman growing up in Mississippi during the era of Jim Crow, but a struggle that Beah Richards won.

“The last word has not been spoken,” Richards said of her life shortly after winning her second Emmy.

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Although she died two weeks later, on Sept. 20, 2000, her words live on in “Beah: A Black Woman Speaks,” a documentary about the Vicksburg native’s life as a actress, playwright, poet and teacher. The film will air on HBO at 6:30 p.m. Feb. 25.

About 150 people, many who knew Richards, attended an early screening of the documentary Sunday at the Vicksburg Convention Center. The crowd that rose to its feet for writer/director Lisa Gay Hamilton also laughed at times and cried at others as the story of Richards played out through personal interviews with the venerable actress.

“That was Beah Richards,” said Teresa Prince Williams after the film.

Williams, a former classmate of Richards’ at Magnolia Avenue High School, was one of the first people to get to act with Richards on the school’s stage in Vicksburg.

“You could always tell she was going to be a star,” Williams said.

Richards is best known for her role in “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner,” a 1967 drama starring Sidney Poitier, Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, that gained Richards an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Her other film credits include “In The Heat of The Night,” “Hurry Sundown,” “Drugstore Cowboy” and “The Great White Hope.”

Hamilton, who played Rebecca on the ABC drama “The Practice,” in which Richards made an appearance, described Richards as a friend and teacher. The two first met on the set of “Beloved” where Hamilton said she was intimidated by Richards’ legend and barely spoke to her.

Despite feeling intimidated, Hamilton eventually struck a friendship with Richards and decided to make the film about her life.

“I’m very proud of this,” Hamilton said. “And so honored to be in Vicksburg for this.”

Hamilton accompanied Richards when she returned home to Vicksburg in 2000 to live with her niece, Sherry Fisher, because of her declining health. Using a hand-held video recorder, she continued recording Richards telling the stories about her life.

“I am so moved that somebody thought enough to tell her story,” Fisher said.

Born July 12, 1924, Richards graduated from Magnolia in 1938 and attended Dillard University in New Orleans for about a year. In the late 1940s, she traveled to San Diego, where she studied acting at the Old Globe Theater for three years before beginning her career spanning more than 50 years.

In addition to her work in films, Richards also was nominated for a Tony Award for her Broadway performance in “Amen Corner” and an Emmy for her guest appearance on the television series “Frank’s Place.”

She has also published three books “One is A Crowd,” “A Black Woman Speaks” and “A Black Woman Speaks and Other Poems.”