Maya Angelou’s directorial debut, Down in the Delta (1998), tells a story of the Sinclair family’s history (in the tumultuous past) and solidarity (in the treacherous present). Under her insightful direction, every member of the large shines. (SAT: 4.5/5)
Maya Angelou’s directorial debut, Down in the Delta (1998) opens in a poor Chicago neighborhood where Rosa Lynn (Mary Alice) does her best to care for her drug-addicted daughter Loretta (Alfre Woodard). Vexed by Loretta’s addiction and neglect of her children – Thomas (Mpho Koaho) and Tracy (Kulani Hassen) – Rosa Lynn decides to send them all to rural Mississippi to live with her brother –their Uncle Earl (Al Freeman Jr.) – for the summer.
In order to pay for the three bus tickets south, Rosa Lynn pawns a precious family heirloom – a silver candelabra that has been in the family since the Civil War. But then she sternly tells Loretta that she is not only responsible for buying the return tickets, she must also make enough money to retrieve the candelabra. Loretta begrudgingly accepts her mother’s challenge. Once in Mississippi, Loretta begins working in Uncle Earl’s restaurant, and life trajectories slowly start to change for everyone.
Watching this transformation through Maya Angelou’s exquisite eyes, I didn’t feel like I was watching a film. The acting is so natural that I felt more like a fly on the wall, witnessing the real lives of real people.
Alfre Woodard gives a glittering performance as Loretta. In one scene she’s learning how to make raw chicken sausage links at Uncle Earl’s restaurant. There is a bit of comedic genius as she attempts to twirl raw meat around with a look of shock, horror, and disgust.
Al Freeman gives Uncle Earl a gruff but loveable vibe. He shows his patience and devotion by caring for his wife, Annie (Esther Rolle), who suffers from Alzheimer’s. Soon after they arrive in Mississippi, Uncle Earl begins to develop a soft spot for Loretta and her kids. He asks his son, Will (Wesley Snipes), to visit home for Annie’s birthday. Despite Will’s assumption that his mother, Annie, will not recognize him as her son, he and his family are all in attendance.
There is also tension in this family story, most especially with respect to Loretta’s substance abuse. Although the burden falls primarily on Rosa Lynn, everyone in the family lives in the shadow of Loretta’s addiction. At one point, when Loretta offers her son yet another apology, Thomas breaks away from her, yelling: “Ain’t enough ‘sorries’ in the world!”
Uncle Earl’s reluctance to take Loretta and the children for the summer when Rosa Lynn asks him to help is understandable. But once they are under his wing in Mississippi, Uncle Earl finds himself anew as the family patriarch. His property contains a cemetery which holds the graves of five generations of Sinclairs. He speaks to Thomas of the significance of a tree stump by saying: “Each one of these rings is a year in this tree’s life. And, each tells a story of this family’s history.”
Indeed, family history flows throughout the film, and the candelabra, of course, is intertwined with all of it. When Uncle Earl says to Loretta: “You’re a Sinclair and that means something to us. I hope it means something to you,” the audience is able to fully appreciate that family pride and unity are Down in the Delta’s takeaways.
Who can say why, but Down in the Delta is the only film Maya Angelou ever directed in her long, distinguished career. Although it was released in 1998, Down in the Delta has a timeless quality that makes it touching decades later. It received the Audience Choice Award for Best Feature at the 1998 Chicago International Film Festival, and was nominated for Outstanding Motion Picture by the NAACP in 1999.
So, I invite you to join FF2 Media today – April 4, 2022 – as we celebrate Maya Angelou’s birthday. You don’t have to watch Down in the Delta today, but we hope you will watch it soon, and certainly before her next birthday rolls around in 2023.
© Stephanie A. Taylor (4/3/22) Special for FF2 Media
LEARN MORE/DO MORE
Visit Maya Angelou’s Wikipedia page for a brief overview of her outstanding career.
Visit the Down in the Delta page on IMDb for full cast & crew credits
CREDITS & PERMISSIONS
Images used in this post are based on a scan of the DVD cover. © 2021 Paramount Pictures. ParamountMovies.com