"Down in the Delta" gets off to an awkward start, but rest assured: It grows on you. Fraught with uneven pacing, labored dialogue and a movie-of-the-week plot, Maya Angelou's directorial debut resonates with so much honesty and pulses with so much emotional and historical truth, that it overcomes every technical limitation.
One of the ways Angelou has overcome the missteps of a first-time filmmaker is in assembling a cast of enormously gifted players, most of them woefully underused these days. The other in her unfailing ear for the ways people speak to one another and the stories they tell.
She has also found the perfect center of this intimate family drama. As Loretta Sinclair, a troubled woman trying to raise two young children in one of Chicago's most brutal housing projects, Alfre Woodard remains a rock-solid presence even when her character is at her most elusive. Watching her face soften, almost imperceptibly, from a scowl to a broad, shy smile, is but one of "Down in the Delta's" pleasures.
We meet Loretta when she is on the brink of self-annihilation, succumbing to drink and drugs and threatening to leave her son Tom (Mpho Koaho) to the streets and her infant daughter to a life of isolation and neglect. Loretta lives with her mother, Rosa Lynn (Mary Alice), but even that gentle woman's spiritual strength can't overcome her daughter's self-destructive despair.
When Loretta pawns a treasured family heirloom to pay for crack cocaine, Rosa Lynn makes a final desperate attempt to save her: She forces Loretta to move down to the family home, in the Mississippi Delta, where she and her children will stay with their Uncle Earl (Al Freeman Jr.).
During the course of their Southern summer, Loretta and the kids will find new sources of strength, self-confidence and a sense of family history.
Plot-wise, there aren't many surprises in "Down in the Delta," but thankfully these accomplished players bring the story home, and the movie is worth the trip just to take them in. Woodard, with her spooked eyes and taut, muscular frame, negotiates Loretta's transformation with a terrific mixture of toughness and grace; one of the best features of "Down in the Delta" is that it doesn't force her to change completely (she's still smoking and drinking, albeit in moderation, at the end of the film).
Freeman, the late Esther Rolle, the sublime Loretta Devine and Wesley Snipes all provide ample support in a movie that in many ways could be seen as a continuation of another good and unfairly overlooked film, "Once Upon a Time ... When We Were Colored."
Where the earlier movie chronicled the migration of blacks from the South to the North, "Down in the Delta" closes the circle, exploring the ways in which contemporary African-Americans are RTC rediscovering their roots and rebuilding their lives in their ancestral homes.
"Down in the Delta" features some pretty typical family melodrama, chiefly in the form of Rolle's character (a woman suffering from Alzheimer's disease), a local factory closing down and Earl's Yuppie son (Snipes) coming to terms with his rural family. But the movie's rich heart is the way in which portrays the pain and pleasure of retrieving the past. More than just Loretta's growth or Tom's salvation, "Down in the Delta" is about families and their stories, and the power of narrative continuity literally to save lives, even when circumstances -- whether slavery or drugs poverty -- constantly threaten to break the thread.
"Down in the Delta" sneaks up on the film-goer, much like the region it depicts (Mississippi, by the way, is played in the film by Ontario, Canada).
By the time it's ended, past and present have fused inextricably to create a movie that, in its own down-home way, is nothing less than epic.
'Down in the Delta'
Starring Alfre Woodard, Mary Alice, Al Freeman Jr., Wesley Snipes
Directed by Maya Angelou
Rated PG-13 (drug related material)
Running time: 111 minutes
Released by Miramax Films
Sun Score ***
Pub Date: 12/25/98