On the surface, Down in the Delta is a variation of an old storyline: a dissolute character goes on a journey to mend his ways and find his voice. Down in the Delta has a twist not often seen in theatres: The main character is a poor African-American woman.
Loretta (Alfre Woodard) pays more attention to drugs on the street than her two kids. Her mother, Rosa Lynn (Mary Alice) pawns the familys most valuable and prized family heirloom, a candelabra known as Nathan, in order to buy bus tickets and ship the family from a Chicago housing project to their ancestral Mississippi home.
The candelabra Nathan is talked of and handled like a human being, which is strange to see until you hear the story: The master of Nathan, a great-grandfather of the family, swapped him for a silver candelabra. During the Civil War, Jesse, Nathans son who was just a child when his father was sold off and his family broken, stole the piece from the mantel of the white family that split his family. Since then, the silver piece and the story have been handed down to the generations.
Loretta protests when the candelabra is pawned for a mere $350, but her mother tells Loretta if she doesnt straighten her ways, the next generation will be lost to the streets as she is.
So all aboard Greyhound and down to Mississippi go Loretta, her son Thomas, and her autistic daughter Tracy. (If youre expecting to see a bit of Mississippi in the movie, dont get your hopes up. The plantation scenes were filmed 40 miles north of Toronto, Canada.)
Uncle Earl puts Loretta up in his home and sets her to work stuffing sausages in his restaurant. Off the drugs and booze, Loretta grows: Her son teaches her basic math so she can become a waitress and run the cash register; she offers ideas to improve the menu and service at the restaurant. Wesley Snipes plays cousin Will, a hot-shot Atlanta lawyer who quietly encourages Loretta, helps to build her confidence. Inspired, confident, and dried out, Loretta and Will eventually lead the community in a fight to keep the major employer, a chicken packing plant, from leaving town.
Under the direction of Maya Angelou, noted author and frequent Oprah guest, and written by Myron Goble, a white male from Georgia, Down in the Delta has become what one critic called a compressed Roots for ordinary people.
Down in the Delta is a story about women, Snipes, the films producer, says in a press release, and the experiences on a black women in particular. If there is anybody who has an understanding of what the experience is to be both a woman and black, it is Maya Angelou.
Angelou doesnt see her directorial debut as a narrow story of the experiences of black women.
Everyone in the world want a good job, to be paid a little more than theyre worth, to be loved and to accept love in return. Everyone wants safe streets and family. Angelou says in a press release. It is a story to remind us that, as human beings, we are all more alike than different.
While the story touches those universals and Im happy to see that films about black women are being made, the films plot is so clichéd its impossible not to know what comes next. The only exception is the story of the candelabra, which is unveiled piece-by-piece through the film. Hearing the story of why the heirloom is so special is the only element of the movie that keeps the audience enthralled.