Down in the Delta
January 28, 2021
t the beginning of Down in the Delta (1998), Maya Angelou’s moving directorial debut, Rosa Lynn Sinclair (Mary Alice) decides that something has to change. She lives in a modest Chicago housing project with her adult daughter, Loretta (Alfre Woodard), and Loretta’s two kids, tweenage Thomas and little Tracy (Mpho Koaho and Kulani Hassen). Recently, she has become the family’s sole breadwinner. For
what we infer are a few years, Loretta hasn’t been able to hold a job and is sinking deeper into addiction. (It has gotten to a point where Thomas feels inclined to shove any spare change he has into the guts of stuffed animals, out of a fear that anything loose will be snatched up by his mother.) Thomas, who just turned 13, is so pessimistic about his safety that he’s contemplating getting a gun soon — a purchase he sees not as a last resort but pragmatically a fact of life. To Rosa Lynn’s eye, city living is the crux of her family’s troubles, and it won't be long before they are entirely consumed if she doesn't do something.
After Loretta experiences a new low, Rosa Lynn concludes that it might be beneficial to send her and the kids down to the Sinclair family farm for the summer. Located in the balmy Mississippi Delta, the handsome property is owned by Rosa Lynn’s sensible business-owner brother-in-law Earl (Al Freeman, Jr.) and his wife, Annie (Esther Rolle), who is now immersed in the throes of dementia. Rosa Lynn figures that by temporarily living there, Loretta will have plenty of time and space to get clean and find a center again. Earl will also likely provide some seasonal employment in addition to general guidance. This is a sojourn designed to nurture both the soul and the worker. Loretta is stubborn at first; then she lowers her guard.
This is an outwardly quaint setup for what will inevitably be a successful soul search for Loretta. Sometimes the movie’s writing can veer toward the schmaltzy, and, particularly through its overuse of flashbacks, the over-literal. But once Down in the Delta gets into a groove — that is to say, gets comfortable in the title setting — it starts to unfurl as a poignant, stirring drama. This is a movie not just about rediscovering oneself after a period of lostness but of connecting with your roots, and how those roots can imbue how you navigate everyday life. It helps that the performances are uniformly excellent, lived-in; Woodard is particularly sublime in what is otherwise a fundamentally simplistically written part. (While we care about where Loretta ends up, her arc is more indebted to pushing the story forward than really exploring her interior life; we don’t really know anything about this character aside from her circumstances, though Woodard’s consummate work for the most part tells us quite a lot.)
In tandem with Loretta’s unofficial journey, Down in the Delta slowly excavates the history behind a precious family heirloom. It’s a shiny silver chandelier the Sinclairs, for reasons we will learn later on, refer to as Nathan. It’s as if this old light fixture were no different from an elder. Although its place in the movie initially seems cutesy — off-puttingly magical — the more we hear of how it got here the more weighty this totem becomes. By the end of Down in the Delta,
which naturally concludes with Loretta turning the page on a new chapter, we also have discovered how Nathan reifies how the Sinclairs have generationally always pushed through hardship.
This is a connection that in hands less sincere than Angelou’s might have evoked mawkishness. (The movie marked both her first and last time directing a film; it was a career-long goal of hers.) But you get caught up in the movie’s languid rhythm, and you come to care about this family. So the placement becomes affecting. The setting, with the sun always out, the space so ample, and the views so invitingly pastoral, gives additional room for introspection. In Down in the Delta, it’s like time is moving at a half speed. The movie is a little too picturesque and a little too orderly — everything comes together with the inexorability of a puzzle’s completion. But it’s so deeply felt that its optimism is ultimately one of the most appealing things about it. It’s just that it's so uncynically offered you instinctively think there must be a catch. But like Loretta, we relent. Angelou benevolently offers a hand. B