Down in the Delta
directed by Maya Angelou
(Miramax, 1998)

"Even though we believe in the Lord to work miracles, sometimes they don't happen in the way we expect," the Rev. Floyd tells his Delta congregation one hot Sunday morning.

Loretta Sinclair is in the congregation that morning, but she doesn't make much of Rev. Floyd's message. And even the most casual observer can see it's going to take more than one miracle to turn Sinclair's life around.

A Chicago party girl on the verge of drug and alcohol addiction, Sinclair (Alfre Woodard) has been blackmailed by her mother into returning with her son and daughter to the family's ancestral home in the Delta, where, under the watchful eyes of her Uncle Earl (Al Freeman Jr.), she gets a second chance to become a mother to her children and a daughter to her mother.

And therein lies a tale, or, rather, a fistful of tales.

Down in the Delta is a story within a story, much of which revolves around a family heirloom named Nathan.

Nathan is a silver candelabra that was quietly removed from the "white" Sinclair's house by one of the Sinclairs' former slaves just as the Civil War was ending. Handed down from generation to generation, it's taken on a mythical quality. And the more Loretta learns about Nathan, the more she learns of her family, herself, her responsibilities and her potential.

Down in the Delta is the directorial debut of Maya Angelou, a poet, essayist and biographer of the first order, and though it's based not on her own work but on a script by Myron Goble, it's full of Angelou's own self. Many of her favorite themes -- human suffering, the need to find your voice, the struggles of black families, the need to connect, the power of myth, the importance of telling stories -- resound through the film.

Still, this is no cinematic novel of ideas. It's peopled with very real characters, not the least of whom is Annie Sinclair, Earl's wife, who lives in a haze of Alzheimer's disease, yet manages to bring something to everyone else in the family.

Esther Rolle leaps as far from Florida Good Times Evans as an actress can go to bring Annie to the screen, and it's a trip worth repeating a dozen times. She's matched line for line, movement for movement, by Freeman as her ever-patient husband, keeper of the family flame and unusually strong and sensitive black male character.

For her part, Woodard is watchable as ever as the mom who might not make it. Abandoned by her children's father shortly after the birth of their autistic daughter (Kulani Hassen) and caught up in the family feud over who should be Nathan's keeper, Loretta makes a wobbly pivot for Goble's story.

But in the end, all eyes are on Angelou, the busy juggler who manages to keep all these balls in the air for 111 minutes before bringing the story to a satisfactory, if not entirely profound, resolution.

Though she sometimes falls back on the visual cliche, and skeptics might think she's put a little too much sap in the family tree, Angelou has put her poet's eyes, ears and sensibilities to good use here. Her film is as sensuous as it is sensitive.

This is one trip to the Delta you won't soon forget.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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