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Down in the Delta

Review by Elias Savada
Posted 25 December 1998

  Directed by Maya Angelou.

Starring Alfre Woodard, Al Freeman, Jr.,
Esther Rolle, Mary Alice, Loretta Divine,
Anne-Marie Johnson, Mpho Koaho,
Justin Lord, and Wesley Snipes.

Written by Myron Goble.

Co-produced by Showtime, the directorial debut of writer/poet Maya Angelou reads much like a made-for-television Hallmark Hall of Fame, this particular appeal dealing with one African-American family’s emotional roller-coaster ride. In much the same manner that network television often opts for a disease-of-the-week or affliction-of-the-weak, Down in the Delta concerns a woman’s pains in liberating herself from the drug-invested, alcohol-ridden Chicago housing projects. She and her children eventually come to a sluggish, but enlightening, trek many miles and heartfelt moments later at their generations-old ancestral homestead just off a delta in Mississippi. It’s a valiant, uplifting effort, devoid of special effects, aliens, bugs, and email, although home-made sausage does save the community from financial ruin. If you're looking for some counter-programming this holiday season, you’ll find this slightly more than passable, helped by some fine performances from Alfre Woodard, Al Freeman, Jr., and the supporting cast. But Angelou’s pen remains mightier than her camerawork.

Unemployed, under-educated, neglectful, and a single parent to two children -- an autistic 4-year-old daughter and a positive-thinking, early-teenage son -- Loretta Sinclair (Woodard) is at sanity’s edge. An unsuccessful attempt to find work at a local supermarket causes her to relapse into the ugly world of booze under the self-serving eye of a drug-dealing neighborhood scumbag. One step forward, two steps back. Rosa Lynn, her strong-willed mother (Mary Alice), dares her offspring to show her devils their due, effectively warning that her grandchildren are "babies on the waiting list to street crime." So Loretta takes a deep breath and a giant leap south to the roots of the Sinclair legacy with the young-uns Thomas (played with stability by Mpho Koaho) and Tracy (Kulani Hansen, who pretty much screams through her role). The trio settle in at the modest yet sun-drenched home of Uncle Earl (Freeman), brother of Loretta’s late father, and his wife Annie (the late Esther Rolle). The new fish out of water are hard-put in dealing with their aunt’s Alzheimer’s-induced wanderings and the slowed-down lifestyle devoid of the inner-city dangers and AK-47 gunfire that had been part of their everyday existence. Yet, slowly, they adjust, as Loretta goes to work at Earl’s Just Chicken restaurant, reins in her addictions, and gains a messful of self-confidence.

The script, by first-time screenwriter and Georgia native Myron Goble, works better as the story heads south and the actors gain confidence in their relaxed surroundings. He intertwines homespun homilies with stories of the family’s generations past (told in numerous recreations throughout the film and rehashed at the film’s conclusion), its brush with slavery, and the history of Nathan, a 150-year-old candlebra that has become the Sinclair’s most valuable and prized heirloom. Passed down from oldest son to oldest son, the family jewel finds temporary shelter in a Chicago pawnshop, sold to pay for bus tickets to Biloxi, but its place on the mantel seems cloyingly assured by film’s end. On the down side, Goble’s tale pushes Loretta into a pain-free rehab and seemingly overnight recovery, while Tracy’s first spoken words are played out in overly sentimental fashion.

Angelou, already recognized as a television director, scriptwriter (Georgia, Georgia), writer-producer (1982’s family-themed drama Sister, Sister), and for numerous musical scores, also earned an Emmy nomination 21 years ago for her supporting role in the landmark production Roots. It’s easy to see why the producers thought this script worthy to be her debut directorial undertaking. Wesley Snipes, who has a small role as Earl’s upper-middle-class Atlanta-based attorney son, was instrumental in pushing the project along through his Amen-Ra Films.

Cinematographer William Wages evokes a warm tone and rural feel, enhanced by Lindsey Hermer-Bell’s stark production design. You wouldn’t know that the film was shot in Toronto, with the Southern-based material filmed 40 miles north of that city.

Woodward, who last year won an Emmy and Golden Globe for her performance in HBO’s Miss Evers’ Boys, imbues Loretta with a quiet dignity (she’s one of America’s best actresses) that elevates the film above it’s weak foundations. Veteran actor Freeman is a sturdy, yet concerned, patriarch who struggles with an ill wife and extends open arms to his city cousins. Good Times’ Esther Rolle’s final credit caps a sad end to a career that also saw her co-star with Angelou and Woodard in How to Make an American Quilt. Loretta Devine, who created "Lorell" in the Broadway production Dreamgirls and has been seen on big screen and small, adds a fine turn as Zenia, a paid helper in the Sinclair household, who becomes a close friend of Loretta’s.

Down in the Delta is not completely convincing, yet the tale is chockful of optimism, and the cast revels in sewing together a family torn asunder. In these depressing times of Presidential impeachment and war in Iraq, Delta will raise your spirits and take your mind off the national headlines. Yes, it’s a slight film. If you miss it now, it’ll be a pleasant enough rental next year for home video, and will, at least for nearly two hours, take your mind away from whatever ills and innuendoes are being telecast on CNN.

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