Few Blues in This Delta

Maya Angelou has been a sexy nightclub singer, a poet, an Inaugural Day speaker – and now, she’s become a film director. Down in the Delta is her first directorial gambit – and whatever nuance and gift Ms. Angelou has with the printed word, her film-making skills are fairly pedestrian. (Myron Goble wrote the script.) Down in the Delta is a warm, if one-dimensional, picture-postcard of family bonding.

Can’t-get-her-act-together single mother, Loretta Sinclair (Alfre Woodard), is browbeaten by her got-her-act-together-with-serenity mom Rosa Lynn (Mary Alice), into leaving the slums of Chicago for a summer with relatives in rural Mississippi. She and her two children encamp with her Uncle Earl (Al Freeman, Jr.), a chicken restaurateur and his rather sentimentalized Alzheimer’s afflicted wife, Annie (the late Esther Rolle, in her last performance). This summer among decent folks takes the hard edges off Loretta, and the gradual unveiling of her family history teaches her newfound self-respect and determination.

The actors give all, but unfortunately, the characters are simple TV archetypes: sassy single moms, wise grandmothers and warmhearted housekeepers. Oddly, the "character" that holds the most intrigue is a silver candelabra named "Nathan." But even the effective point Angelou makes with Nathan lacks a skilled director’s touch. Its secret is explicitly explained several times; a more talented director would have let the audience make the connection.

The larger tale is intriguing, a contemporary reversal of the poor rural black migration to the northern industrial cities that marked the early and mid-twentieth century. The fantasy now says: abandon urban public housing and welfare dependence, and return to one’s roots in a bucolic Mississippi, where birds sing, children frolic, neighbors are kind and fried chicken is abundant. (Really. A critical plot point.) Is this a valid fantasy for today? Times are tough on Chicago’s Southside, but backwater Mississippi isn’t exactly Eden either. Is such a return to the pastoral possible or even ultimately that desirable? Fertile narrative ground for examining tricky, yet valuable, class, socio-economic and historical issues is left untilled.

Now that TV unspools appalling-crime-of-the-week movies and revels in the disintegrating families of The Jerry Springer Show, the slack in heartwarming sentimental family films has been picked up by this studio movie. Down in the Delta is a simple and gently-told story, but it feels dated, like those earnest tackling-a-social-problem "very special presentations the whole family will want to watch" Hallmark Theater movies of the 1970s. Such a film is not unpleasant nor unwelcome (there’s something to be said these days for a positive message movie the whole family can indeed sit through) but it’s not very realistic or provocative.

Rated PG-13 for some shouting. No profanity, nudity or violence.

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