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IN SHORT: Good story idea hampered by lethargic execution.
Down in the Delta is the story of a family in tatters: A man and a woman have not talked in years due to a dispute over an inheritance; A grandmother struggles to keep her daughter coherent enough to raise her grandchildren; A husband struggles to maintain as normal a life as possible as his wife withers in front of him, wracked by disease.
Down in the Delta is the first film directed by the poet Maya Angelou and, regardless the complexion of the creators, it is a story which should connect to each and every one of us. It is a story that is meant to show that hope exists at the end of a trail littered with adversity and, as written by Georgia native and first time screenwriter Myron Goble, it takes forever to play out. The characters evolve slowly because that's how real life is. Terminally slow. So slow that an urban native like Cranky was yearning for any kind of cliche to happen to spark some life into the movie.
Damned thing is, the point of Down in the Delta is that we all need to know where we come from, something that is very near and dear to Cranky's heart. We need to have knowledge of our personal family's history, in the movie's case symbolized by a silver candelabra that has been passed down to the eldest of each generation of a family surnamed Sinclair.
In the projects of Chicago lives Grandma Rosa Sinclair (Mary Alice), her illiterate and usually strung out daughter Loretta (Alfre Woodard) and grandchildren Thomas (Mpho Koaho) and Tracy (Kulani Hassen). Thomas is bright, clean and motivated. Self-help tapes play in his walkman and he does a brisk business selling Polaroid Tourist portraits along the Lake Michgan waterfront. Rosa is feeling her age. She is not strong enough to raise Tracy, who screams like a crack baby and, at age 3 or 4, still sleeps in a crib. Rosa knows the only way to save her family is to get them the hell out of Chicago. To do so, she pawns the family heirloom, a sterling silver candelabra nicknamed Nathan. Rosa remains behind and challenges Loretta to get straight and work hard enough to get Nathan out of pawn.
Destination: Mississippi. There, Rosa's brother-in-law Earl (Al Freeman Jr.) runs a fairly prosperous restaurant catering to the workers at the local chicken processing plant. In a pleasing bit of irony, Earl and his wife Annie (Esther Rolle) live in the old "big house," where the "white" Sinclair family lived back in slavery days. Annie has Alzheimer's Disease and Earl is aided by a paid helper named Zenia (Loretta Devine). Even with the help, the effort is taking its toll. When the call from Rosa comes, Earl refuses to help. When Rosa threatens to out and out sell Nathan, Earl buckles. The city cousins meet the country cousins, (which include Wesley Snipes as the son who moved away to Atlanta, meaning he too does not want to come home) and everybody learns just a little bit more about the world outside the symbolic ghettos they live in.
Watching the faces of actors Woodard and Freeman, you know there is a significant story to the history of Nathan. It comes out in tiny little servings as the script gently unwinds. By the time the true meaning of the icon is revealed, it is too late to strike the kind of emotional chord it seeks to. It does not make me happy to report the fact, friends, but Cranky has seen Down in the Delta twice, in rough and in final cut. Though much improved, the film is, at one hour fifty, terminally long.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Down in the Delta, he would have paid...
Rent it. Then, when you get the point, tell your family's story to your kids. Or take the time to find out your own.
On a sad note, Down in the Delta marks Esther Rolle's final role. G'bye Florida.
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