Down in the Delta

Dec 23, 1998 at 12:00 am

Conceived as "a lyrical ode to the notions of family, responsibility and pride in one's ancestry," Maya Angelou's Down in the Delta presents a sketchy clash between two worlds: that of the corrupt city and that of the peaceful small town.

The opposition between the ruthless cityscape (drugs, alcohol, gangs, graffiti) and the comforting countryside (clean diners, Sunday school, community spirit) is, unfortunately, not the only cliché in the film. Stereotypical characters with moralizing stories and unamazing insights work against the potential depth and universality of the script as well.

The first half of the film sets up the problems that the second half will solve. The single parent of two children -- an autistic little girl and an angry teenage boy -- Loretta (Alfre Woodard) spends her life in a drunken stupor: She can't hold a job; she doesn't get along with her mother (Mary Alice); she doesn't care about anything or anybody. Once she moves back to the family's ancestral home in the Mississippi delta, everything falls into place: She works in the family diner; she learns the truth about the family's tragic history (shown in repetitive flashbacks of exaggerated lyricism); she finds her way back to her mother's heart. As the film draws to its happy end, Loretta expands the family business; the autistic child speaks; and the family is reconciled forever.

Maybe the flaw lies in Myron Goble's less than subtle script which doesn't allow for a smooth translation of poetic images into film language. Maybe we're just tired of facile solutions. Whatever the cause, Down in the Delta looks like a crippled negotiation between Hate and Daughters of the Dust.


"How did you like the film, honey?"

"It wasted my time."

"But it was a good movie, all about family and community."

"But it wasted my time!"

Short and brutal, the kid's answer silences for a moment those who stop to listen, amused by the exchange -- and the truth about a naked emperor again finds refuge in the words of a child.

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