[Screen It]


(1998) (Alfre Woodard, Al Freeman, Jr.) (PG-13)

Blood/Gore Disrespectful/
Bad Attitude
Tense Scenes
Moderate None Moderate None Mild
Minor None None None Minor
Smoking Tense Family
Topics To
Talk About
Minor Moderate Moderate Mild Minor

Drama: Hoping to turn their desperate lives around, a grandmother forces her unemployed, single daughter to move her family from urban Chicago to their uncle's Mississippi home.
In the bleak, urban shadows of Chicago, Loretta (ALFRE WOODARD) is an unemployed, single mother who copes with her dismal life with booze and drugs. Realizing that they're leading dead- end lives and tired of always babysitting her grandkids, Thomas (MPHO KOAHO), an increasingly streetwise, but still respectable boy, and his younger, but autistic sister, Tracy (KULANI HASSEN), Loretta's mother, Rosa Lynn (MARY ALICE), finally hits her breaking point and comes to a decision.

Pawning the family's prized heirloom, a candelabra nicknamed "Nathan," in exchange for bus tickets, Rosa Lynn sends Loretta and her kids to Mississippi where they'll spend the summer with her brother, Earl (AL FREEMAN, JR.), who lives in a "dry" county, and hopefully straighten out their lives.

At first, Earl isn't crazy about this arrangement. He's feuded with Rosa Lynn for years over the ownership of "Nathan," and has his own "problems" with which he must deal. Not only does he run a successful diner, but he must also care for his wife Annie (ESTHER ROLE), whose bout with Alzheimer's has left her in a permanently childlike state, although he does get help from Zenia (LORETTA DEVINE), her daytime attendant.

Even so, Earl sets out to help his relatives, and hopes that his new extended family may entice his somewhat estranged son, Will (WESLEY SNIPES), an Atlanta lawyer, to forgo his usual ritual of avoiding visiting his family. With Earl's help and the aide of learning what family is all about, Loretta lands on her feet and begins to rebuild her life.

Unless they're fans of someone in the cast, or of poet turned director, Maya Angelou, it's not very likely.
For drug related material.
  • ALFRE WOODARD plays an unemployed, single mother who initially spends most of her time drunk and/or high. After her mother forces her to move away from temptation, Loretta cleans up her act, gets a job, and becomes a better mother.
  • AL FREEMAN JR. plays Loretta's uncle who takes her and her family in while running his own business and dealing with his wife who has Alzheimer's. He's a very good role model.
  • MARY ALICE plays Loretta's concerned mother who takes care of her kids before sending all of them off to Mississippi hoping that the change of scenery will help them.
  • WESLEY SNIPES plays an Atlanta lawyer who avoids his parents apparently due to his reaction to his mother's Alzheimer's. He does change his ways, however, by the story's end.
  • MPHO KOAHO plays Loretta's son who's a decent kid on the verge of being corrupted by the inner-city lifestyle, but his family's move to Mississippi prevents that from occurring.
  • ESTHER ROLLE plays Loretta's aunt whose Alzheimer's has left her in a permanent, childlike condition.


    OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
    The motif of strong family bonds has long been a favorite of old-fashioned dramas, and it plays out well in "Down in the Delta," the methodical, but still affecting directorial debut by noted poet and author, Maya Angelou.

    Although it has the look and feel of a made for TV movie -- albeit, a well-produced one -- and occasionally suffers from predictability and some stumbling while trying to tell its story, for the most part the picture works rather well.

    While it definitely takes a while to get rolling, the picture does get better as it progresses and aptly uses its casual pace to work its spell over the audience. Although the film doesn't stand much of a chance amidst the onslaught of big budget, holiday-based competition, it should find a receptive audience once on it appears on video and later airings on TV.

    While the mostly old-fashioned film is slow-moving and offers few, if any, surprises, it's refreshing to see that it doesn't fall into the standard, melodramatic tearjerker or sickening, saccharinely sweet trap that befalls many films of this genre.

    Despite what appears to be the standard issue setup, no characters die to insure that family members finally band together, and things still aren't perfect by the film's end. They've changed enough, however, to spread more than a glimmer of hope not only through the characters, but also the audience, in showing that things can get a little better with some effort and a huge "heapin'' of family closeness.

    Of course some viewers -- especially those weaned on family-based TV productions where everything turns out okay at the end -- will find the lack of complete closure as somewhat irksome, and the film occasionally does elicit the feeling that we're seeing only part of the story, and that perhaps there's a sequel or prequel needed to gain that closure.

    Nor does it help that many parts of the film feel too episodic -- or otherwise disengaged and removed from the proceedings -- to complement the natural progression of the overall narrative (and are even punctuated by the scenes fading to black before the story moves on).

    Even so, it's the whole element of "Nathan," the pawned and much discussed candelabra that -- while seemingly odd and abstract at first -- slowly begins to weave the theme of strong family bonds and history throughout the film. As presented in visual and narrative flashbacks, we learn the history of the otherwise unimpressive candle holder, and it's in these moments that the film's elements finally begin to jell into a more substantial piece.

    It also doesn't hurt that the picture's characters are well drawn and those inhabiting them deliver above average performances. While her character might go through the transformation from a waste case to a hard-working woman a bit too easily and quickly, Alfre Woodard ("Star Trek: First Contact," TV's "Miss Evers' Boys") gives her some much needed, but believable dignity that easily makes her sympathetic to the audience.

    Other performances are just as good. Both Al Freeman Jr. ("Malcolm X") and Mary Alice ("The Inkwell") give strong performances as the rival siblings who care deeply about their family and its history, while the late Esther Rolle (TV's "Good Times") is good as the mother suffering from Alzheimer's. Meanwhile, Wesley Snipes ("Blade") delivers a solid, if subdued take as a reluctant son, while newcomer Mpho Koaho is also quite good.

    Although first-time screenwriter Myron Goble's script occasionally suffers from dialogue that feels a bit too forced and "on the nose" (such as an early telephone conversation between Earl and Rosa Lynn), a tendency to shortchange what would seem to be necessary moments (we never see Loretta going through withdrawal or even much of an urge to partake), as well as the afore mentioned episodic tendencies, the film's overall impression definitely falls under the old saying of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.

    Not great, but rather good, the film exceeds its made for TV trappings mainly due to its shining cast, their performances, and Angelou's nice, first-time directorial touches. We give "Down in the Delta" a 6 out of 10.

    Brief drug use -- that shows the mother smoking pot and another character also ingesting drugs -- is what gives this film its PG-13 rating. Some drinking and smoking also occurs, as does minor profanity and brief, nonsexual cleavage.

    Beyond some thematic issues that touch on Alzheimer's disease, autism, slavery and the family issues, the rest of the film is mostly void of any other major objectionable content. Nonetheless, should you still be concerned about the film's appropriateness, we suggest that you take a closer look at what's been listed.

  • Loretta returns home and appears to be drunk and/or high.
  • Loretta buys a bottle of booze in the liquor store and then drinks it empty (from a brown paper bag in a school ground).
  • Loretta smokes a joint and closely holds a bottle of liquor next to her in a dilapidated apartment where others also drink and do drugs. One woman smokes what may be crack cocaine, and offers some to Loretta, but she refuses it.
  • Zenia offers Loretta a beer (after she's spent some time in the "dry" county in which Earl lives) and we later see that they've had several.
  • A very brief flashback shows some soldiers from the past drinking.
  • None.
  • Loretta's early behavior shows both as she gets drunk/high while having her mother take care of her kids.
  • We briefly hear about Loretta and Zenia's husbands who hit the road and left them to raise their kids by themselves.
  • Some may see Will as having a little of both for not visiting his parents more often (and he stays away partially because of his mother's bout with Alzheimer's disease).
  • A brief, but important scene shows a slave being sold in exchange for a candelabra.
  • None.
  • We hear some gunshots outside Rosa Lynn's inner city home.
  • Young Thomas briefly talks about everyone having guns in Chicago, and that when everyone is "strapped" (carrying a gun), you should be strapped as well. He also comments on a particular gun being a good summer gun (meaning you don't need a heavy winter coat to conceal it).
  • Earl briefly comments on a story in the paper about a man shooting and killing several people before killing himself.
  • Earl shows Thomas how to fire a shotgun (so that he can show him the damage/harm it can do).
  • Loretta puts cola in Tracy's bottle (who, by the way, is old enough not to use a bottle or sleep in a crib like she does).
  • None.
  • None.
  • None.
  • At least 3 hells, 2 damns, and 1 "Lord" used as exclamations.
  • Loretta shows quite a bit of cleavage in one scene, and a little bit less in another.
  • Loretta smokes quite often during the film.
  • Some people smoke in a dilapidated room.
  • A very brief flashback shows a man smoking a cigar in the distant past.
  • Thomas isn't happy with his mother (for her behavior) and the same holds true for Rosa Lynn being upset with her daughter (who threatens to call the child welfare people on her).
  • Earl and Rosa Lynn have something of an ongoing feud regarding the rightful owner of Nathan (the candelabra).
  • Will's relationship with his parents is somewhat strained (apparently due to his reaction to his mother's Alzheimer's) and his own relationship with his wife appears to be strained (his wife comments on them working "harder" at it).
  • Loretta and Zenia briefly talk about the men in their lives leaving them to be single mothers having to raise their children.
  • In a flashback a wife and son must watch their father being traded (as a slave) for a candelabra.
  • The importance of family overall, and in determining one's place in society.
  • The conditions of Annie (Alzheimer's disease) and young Tracy (autism) that cause them to behave the way they do.
  • A brief, but important scene shows a slave being sold in exchange for a candelabra.
  • Earl briefly comments on a story in the paper about a man shooting and killing several people before killing himself (not seen and only briefly mentioned).
  • Thomas and Will's son briefly getting into a minor pushing match.

  • Reviewed November 20, 1998 / Posted on December 25, 1998

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