Down In The Delta

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Down In The Delta

The story of esteemed poet and author Maya Angelou, as told in a series of autobiographies (five and counting), is held as a model of triumph over adversity; the first installment, 1970's I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, has become a grade-school standard, the inspirational account of a gangly Arkansas schoolgirl's struggle with poverty, racism, and horrific sexual abuse. So it's fitting that Angelou's directorial debut, Down In The Delta, would offer an antidote to the romanticized violence and nihilism found in the most exploitative 'hood movies. Alfre Woodard leads a fine cast as a strung-out, beleaguered single mother in the Chicago projects who spends a summer with her two children at their family's ancestral home in rural Mississippi. Under her uncle's (Al Freeman Jr.) patient tutelage, Woodard gradually straightens up and learns the values of self-reliance and family tradition. Though well-intentioned and occasionally affecting, Down In The Delta is more successful as a social tool than a work of art. Angelou's portrait of tenement life, with temptation on every street corner and the sound of machine-gun patter as common as chirping crickets, is disappointingly generic, and things scarcely get more authentic once the action moves to the impossibly sun-touched countryside. But there's little she can do with Myron Goble's script, which is overstuffed with pitiable conditions (Alzheimer's and autism), cozy homilies, and one deadly piece of symbolism—a sterling-silver candelabra hauling a message that's about as subtle as getting clubbed in the head with, well, a sterling-silver candelabra. While Angelou's hopeful, progressive view of familial and spiritual empowerment makes Down In The Delta difficult to dislike, the film never approaches the grace and lyricism of her best work.

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