She knows why the caged bird sings

With themes of family survival that recall August Wilson's Piano Lesson and Babyface's blockbuster Soul Food, Down in the Delta is by definition the film that Tinsel-town pundits say today's African-American audience wants to see. The reasons are so simple they're difficult to finger at first, especially given a screenplay that at first blush is almost too familiar.

Loretta Sinclair (finely wrought by Alfre Woodard) is a single mother living with her mother, Rosa Lynn (played by stage veteran Mary Alice), in the Chicago projects. When Loretta's chronic unemployment, alcohol abuse, and failure to meet the challenges of an autistic daughter (whom everyone mistakes for a crack baby) threaten to crush her soul, it's clear something's got to give.

What gives, literally, is a silver antebellum heirloom candelabra named Nathan that Rosa Lynn pawns to get bus fare for her daughter's ride home to the Mississippi Delta. Once there, Loretta rediscovers her place in an African-American family that has devoted itself to strivin' and survivin' at all costs. Loretta's Uncle Earl (played by Al Freeman Jr. with the grace and wisdom of a truly seasoned veteran) is a successful restaurateur who has managed to buy the home of the family's slave-owners, the "white Sinclairs," and make it his own. He's also raised a community-conscious lawyer son, generously played by Wesley Snipes.

The fairly pat, predictable storyline crafted by Myron Goble, a non-African-American screenwriter, gets transformed by the expressive performances of a truly stellar cast. The late Esther Rolle of Good Times fame delivers a groundbreaking performance as Earl's Alzheimer-stricken wife, Annie. She is matched by the sassy New Southern warmth of Loretta Devine as Earl's housekeeper and the innate abilities of just-discovered child actor Mpho Koaho as Loretta's streetwise, heart-strong son Thomas. Rarely has such tenderness, devotion, and love been portrayed by a black ensemble cast in a Hollywood release.

First-time feature film director Maya Angelou grounds the film's finer moments in her to-the-marrow understanding of black sensibilities, which movies like Amistad and Beloved tried for but missed with budgets 10 times larger. Delta reaches a resonance with sophisticated African-American audiences that's difficult to describe yet is wholly realized: It's the combined alchemy of fine acting, a director whose charisma drew the cast together, and the sensitive but straightforward imagery of cinematographer William Wages. As one early film festival reviewer put it, why Oprah gave Angelou a million-dollar birthday present but didn't hire her to direct Beloved is something African America may never understand.

Down in the Delta was coproduced by Woodard and Snipes, who both, according to Angelou, worked for "peanut shells" to help her tell the story right. Originally considered too soft for the big screen by movie executives, Delta created a buzz when it previewed at the Urbanworld Film Festival in New York. It's since won the Audience Award at the Chicago Film Festival, and now those same doubtful executives are hoping for cross-over box-office appeal.

Their concern seems misplaced until one considers a much-touted race-based Hollywood syllogism: A) Films with African-American themes don't sell overseas in the ever-important foreign markets. B) Hits like Soul Food may garner $44 million domestically, and Waiting to Exhale may strike pay dirt with equal vigor, but the fact is that only 3 percent of all viewers for Exhale were white. Therefore, C) Black films either don't get made or they get a tiny bottom-line budget.

How to reverse this self-defeating equation of money and power? Make budget-conscious films that chip away slowly at the nation's resistance to black life and concerns, namely, Down in the Delta.

Concerns like these, and lack of money (Delta was made for $3 million), did take a certain toll on the film. The bus that ought to be a Greyhound isn't, a technicality that will interrupt the suspension of disbelief for more mechanically minded theater-goers. And an early soup-line scene, used to illustrate Rosa Lynn's background, should have been left on the cutting-room floor.

But the film's ability to deliver complex, fully realized moments overshadows these quibbles. There's a quietly stunning scene where Rosa Lynn faces down a corner drug dealer and his crew, warning them to leave young Thomas alone. The otherwise intelligent young dealer's response is even, and devastating: "But will he leave me alone?"

The straightforward black-and-white flashbacks to the slavery auction block offer no chains, no whips, no bloodletting, no bloodcurdling screams, no horror-movie score. Instead, the inhumane trade is portrayed for what it was: a cold, hard, light-of-day, mundane commerce based on the exchange of human property. What better take on slavery's legacy for a contemporary African-American audience that's still too familiar with soft-focus racism? And what better lesson for a white audience that's more perplexed than ever by the remnants of this country's most peculiar institution.

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