Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Down in the Delta

By Russell Smith

DECEMBER 28, 1998:  D: Maya Angelou; with Alfre Woodard, Mary Alice, Mpho Koaho, Al Freeman Jr., Esther Rolle, Wesley Snipes. (PG-13, 111 min.)

More than once the great poet and activist Maya Angelou has lambasted Hollywood's ghettocentric vision of black culture. And it's fair to assume her desire to free her people from the cramped confines of Def Jam's Dead Presidents Got the Hookup II the House Party Friday in Da Hood played a large part in her decision to direct her first movie at age 70. Yet while no coochies are popped and nary a cap is busted in anyone's ass during Down in the Delta, it's still every bit as tired and formulaic as any recent Jamie Foxx vehicle. Granted, viewers who don't mind trading originality for a few positive black images will find plenty in this story of a poor, dysfunctional Chicago family rediscovering its down-home roots. Its characters are solidly based in reality - or at least familiar archetypes. Elderly matriarch Rosa Lynn (Alice) is the stern, Bible-thumping rock of the family. Daughter Loretta (Woodard) is basically decent, but too much of a drunken wastrel to care for herself, much less her autistic daughter Tracy. Then there's Loretta's bright young son Thomas (Koaho), a Save the Children poster boy who's wavering between his artistic muse (photography) and local gangstas who are recruiting him on as a junior associate. Sensing imminent disaster, Rosa Lynn packs all three off to the old family farm in Mississippi, where she hopes a summer's exposure to the plow-mule work ethic of Uncle Earl (Freeman) and some dramatic revelations about their family past will cure their destructive city-bred pathologies. As you've surely gathered, this is a film about affirming the verities: Knowing one's history; taking care of family; keepin' on keepin' on in the face of hardship. All swaddled in a warm, cozy package of nostalgic rural imagery and relentlessly upbeat soundtrack music. I suspect you already know if you like this kind of thing (heads up, fans of Soul Food and How to Make an American Quilt). You know whether the emotion-rich performances such films tend to feature - Woodard and Koaho, in particular, are exceptional here - make up for the one-dimensionality of their characters. My own feelings for the genre are admittedly lukewarm, but in this case I'm basing my final verdict on a belief that even movies with a no-bones mission to inspire and evangelize should at least acknowledge how damnably hard it is for people to change their lives. To kick hard drugs, to believe in oneself after countless screwups, to see a point in hope when you're riding an 0-for-a-lifetime losing streak - these things take time, determination, and a lot of luck. Down in the Delta, like a gratingly platitudinous self-help tape, sugarcoats the complex one-step-back, two-steps-forward nature of personal and social progress. And like the drugs and booze it condemns, it provides a warm rush of euphoria, but no real answers. (12/25/98)

2.5 stars

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