I met the extraordinary Beah Richards when we worked together on the film Beloved. She was an award-winning actor, an activist, and a poet, but perhaps she's best known for her Oscar-nominated performance as Sidney Poitier's mother in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. A few years after we acted together, I discovered that she lived not far from me and decided to pay her a visit. The first time I left her house, I knew she possessed wisdom that would change my life in unimaginable ways.
I told Jonathan Demme, the director of Beloved, about my new friendship with Beah and all the astounding things I was learning about her—I had no idea that she was a poet or that she'd fought alongside social activists W.E.B. DuBois and Paul Robeson. Jonathan paved the way for Beah and me to begin collaborating on a documentary. He sent me cameras and a note saying, "Do it!" Beah and Jonathan took a leap of faith in my ability to direct, and I blindly and enthusiastically began a journey that I am forever grateful for and changed by. There are rare moments in all of our lives when the timing is just perfect. The point is that when—not if but when—opportunities arrive, you must be prepared. I felt a great sense of responsibility for chronicling this woman's life and supporting her voice, and not getting in her way.
Beah died in the fall of 2000, before we were able to complete the documentary together, but she had awakened me to her powerful way of thinking. About the same time, I made another leap into the unknown: I became a parent. It had taken me a good three years to determine whether or not I wanted to be a single mother. Like many women, I had the traditional vision etched in my brain: You get married, you have kids. Once I decided not to wait to have a man in my life, an extraordinary burden lifted.
At the final editing session, my editor, Kate Amend, and I sat crying in acknowledgment of the beauty of this film—and Beah's life. Kate said to me: "What a year you've had. You've given birth to two extraordinary beings." Something inside me clicked. I hadn't thought of it that way. When Kate pointed out the parallel nature of these monumental events, I realized how very lucky I was to have had both experiences in my life. Growth—spiritual, emotional, any kind that really matters—is a process. You create, give back, let go, and evolve. And then you pass the baton.
Lisa Gay Hamilton's documentary, Beah: A Black Woman Speaks, airs on HBO February 25.