Wednesday, December 23, 1998

Too much tugging on heartstrings

Movie: Down in the Delta

Posted on Wed, Dec 23, 1998 at 4:00 AM

**1/2
Our Rating: 2.50

Good intentions, heartfelt sentiment and positive messages don't necessarily add up to great works of art. Otherwise, critics might be calling for the video release of every "ABC Afterschool Special" and all the dreadful made-for-television movies about women and children in peril, and the happy endings in store for people of good faith.

Those kinds of productions, sad to say, are called to mind by "Down in the Delta," the alternately melancholy and uplifting directorial debut from Maya Angelou, the beloved African-American poet, educator, writer and renaissance woman. Working from a script by Myron Goble, Angelou unceremoniously goes for the heartstrings every time in this story of one family's spiritual transformation after leaving the Chicago projects for a new life in rural Mississippi.

Alfre Woodard ("Crooklyn," "Passion Fish"), to her credit, makes much of a role that initially has the actor simply shifting from intoxicated to forlorn and back. Woodard is Loretta, a single mother of two whose despair over her daughter's autism, and bitterness over life's lost opportunities, have driven the woman to all-night boozing and side trips to a filthy shooting gallery for drugs. "The devil is strong, so strong," a church friend tells Loretta's heartbroken mother, Rosa Lynn (Mary Alice).

Rosa is stronger than all that, though, so she points the way to potential salvation, courtesy of a summer stay in the South with her brother in law, gruff but kindly Uncle Earl (Al Freeman Jr.). Loretta agrees to take the kids and make the trip only after her mom threatens to call the child welfare department. And the bus tickets are paid for when Grandma pawns "Nathan," a silver candelabra and family heirloom with a history that's rather awkwardly woven into the plot.

Angelou can't be faulted for the scenes of transition, as the family abandons the hectic pace and violence of the big city for the quieter, more friendly environs of their new digs. The three initially are bewildered by Earl's wife Annie (the late Esther Rolle), given to the unpredictable and memory annihilation of Alzheimer's. Loretta, soon enough, demonstrates a knack for the operations of Earl's restaurant, Just Chicken. Her precocious, gentlemanly son Thomas (Mpho Koaho) takes to the fresh air and wide open spaces. And young Tracy (Kulani Hassen) miraculously begins to speak.

All that drama is plenty to fill up a movie, but there's more: Earl's son, Will (Wesley Snipes), a dissatisfied Atlanta attorney increasingly at odds with his pretty wife, is also experiencing a yearning to return to home.

Just in the nick of time, too. The local chicken plant is closing, causing a hardship for 200 families, and it just may take the shared ingenuity of Loretta and Will to create a new business -- say, a Just Chicken chain -- that will thwart economic doom for the area. "Can we do it for ourselves?" Loretta asks, during a meeting with area residents eager to find a solution to the impending crisis. It's one trauma too many.

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