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With: Alfre Woodward, Al Freeman Jr., Mary Alice, Esther Rolle, Loretta Devine, Wesley Snipes, Mpho Koaho, Kulani Hassen, Anne Marie Johnson, Justin Lord
Written by: Myron Goble
Directed by: Maya Angelou
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for drug related material
Running Time: 112
Date: 08/05/1998

Down in the Delta (1998)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

'Delta' Blues

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

It's hard to imagine poet/actress/author Maya Angelou, on top of all her many other achievements, saying, "you know, what I really want to do is direct." Yet direct she does, and makes a fine job of it with Down in the Delta, starring Alfre Woodard and Wesley Snipes. At first glance, Down in the Delta may seem like a TV-disease-of-the-week movie and I was not thrilled about having to see it. But, sitting there in the dark, I became tremendously moved by the movie, and I have not forgotten its power.

Because of its subject matter, I couldn't help comparing this movie to Beloved, and Down in the Delta is the better of the two. Beloved was beautifully shot, and contains many moments of extraordinary beauty, poetry, and power, but suffers from excessive length and a confused plot. Down in the Delta, on the other hand, is shot with little imagination. It looks like a TV movie, flat and even. Yet Angelou and scriptwriter Myron Goble bring out the storytelling. And Angelou's direction makes the characters breathe by showing us their souls.

In Down in the Delta, Woodard plays Loretta, an unemployed single mother living in Chicago, and beginning to succumb to drugs. She lives with her mother Rosa Lynn (Mary Alice), her son (Mpho Koaho) and her autistic daughter (Kulani Hassen). Rosa Lynn hocks the family heirloom -- a candelabra called Nathan -- to raise bus money to send Loretta and the kids to the Mississippi Delta to live with her brother, Loretta's Uncle Earl (Al Freeman Jr.), and Aunt Annie (the late Esther Rolle), who suffers from Alzheimer's disease. Later, Annie and Earl's son Will (Snipes) pays a visit. He has put down his roots in the city and is slowly losing touch with his family. Eventually, the story of Nathan (the candelabra), which harkens back to slavery days, comes out. It's this story that becomes the emotional center of the movie, making us realize both how strong and how fragile a family really is.

Despite its soap-opera shortcomings, Down in the Delta reached me, and I feel all the better for having connected with it as well. As a director, Angelou finds the center to this material. And Woodard, one of our very finest actresses, gives one of her best performances here. It's worthy of an Oscar.

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