This week’s film is directed by the legend that is one Dr. Maya Angelou. I’m not going to speak about her in the past tense because she lives on always and has been one of the biggest constants of my life. My mother recently gave me Letter to my Daughter and it’s just perfect.
While I know her life experiences could not be more different to mine, her words still speak to all women and I can’t think of a more powerful, beautiful voice. How is she as a movie director though? Let’s see, shall we?
Down in the Delta (1998)
Rosa Lynn sends her druggie daughter Loretta and her children Thomas and Tracy away from the big city to live with their uncle Earl in the ancestral home in rural Mississippi.
Sometimes, the last place you expected to be is the one place you’ve always belonged…
Rosa Lynn Sinclair (Mary Alice) lives in a Chicago housing project with her troubled daughter Loretta (Woodard), and Loretta’s two children: two-year-old Tracy and 13-year-old Thomas (Kulani Hassen and Mpho Koaho). The poor woman is trying desperately to keep her family together but unfortunately, unemployment is rife, gang violence is a very real concern – and Loretta is very much off the wagon.
Thomas helps care for Autistic Tracy but it’s not very fair on either of them, or on Rosa – especially when Loretta is out living it up until the early hours. Everything looks bleak but for a moment there, Loretta is hopeful when she spots a Help Wanted sign at the local grocery store. The family pin all their hopes on the new job which will keep her out of trouble but also give them a much needed second income, maybe even get Loretta out of her mother’s tiny apartment and into a home of their own.
Alas, it’s not meant to be and a crushed Loretta falls back into old habits. When Rose goes to retrieve her from the local crack house, it’s the final straw. She decides it’s high time her grouchy brother-in-law Earl (Al Freeman Jr.) takes them on for the Summer. Earl lives in Mississippi in the family home and he reluctantly agrees to take his niece and her children for a while but only because Rosa blackmails him. More on that later.
One long Greyhound bus ride later and the family arrive at their destination. Thomas has been promised interesting wildlife and fields in which to run free – and as a budding photographer, he’s not against this change of scenery.
Meanwhile, Earl is civil enough but the poor man has his own heartache to contend with: his lovely wife Annie (Esther Rolle) has late stage dementia and needs round the clock care.
Well, the pace of life is infinitely different in Mississippi, and Earl will suffer no fools. Loretta is expected to get up early and help him at his chicken-only restaurant, first making sausages in the kitchen, then moving up to working the till and waitressing. And what do you know? She’s a bloody natural.
Without the demon drink and drugs, Loretta is free to thrive – and when she reconnects with Earl’s son Will (Wesley Snipes), she starts to dream bigger, learning the definition of entrepreneur. When the local chicken factory – and the biggest employer in town – announces its closure, it’s Loretta who gees everyone up to fight back, much to Earl’s delight.
Thomas and Tracy too settle into rural life, and Loretta questions whether or not she can go back to Chicago now, despite her mama being settled there. Will there be good enough reason to stay?
There’s a lot of focus throughout this story on a silver candelabra named ‘Nathan’ which is a bone of contention between Earl and his sister-in-law Rosa. The roots of this thread and what this talisman represents is incredibly moving – and once understood, roots Loretta back into her rich family history.
Oh God. I am a great believer in a good cry and this got me good several times. It’s just lovely and although there are no surprises, it moves at a pleasing pace and knocks out some brilliant performances. Alfre Woodard in particular brings nuance to the character of Loretta and even though she makes questionable life choices, my sympathies are always with her.
I would have liked more one on one time with her and her daughter though. Part of Loretta’s deal is the constant guilt she lives with, blaming herself for Tracy’s condition – and although things get better, I want to see more of it. It’s so touching when Tracy says her first words: “Bye bye”.
My stand out might be Thomas though, that kid seems to have the patience of a saint and treats everybody around him with a kindness I’d struggle to muster in the same circumstances. He has his own entrepreneurial streak, earning money taking pictures of tourists when he should be in school. It’s devastating to think kids like him IRL don’t have many opportunities and have to fight extra hard to change their circumstances.
At one point Thomas speaks very candidly about his plan to get a gun to protect himself in the projects, much to Earl’s shock and dismay. What different worlds the two of them live in.
Down in the Delta actually left me feeling a little sad personally. Loretta, as she bonds with Earl and unravels her family’s personal history, learns to appreciate where she came from and where it could take her.
Roots are so important and while my family history is by no means comparable, it reminded me of all the stories our elders take with them when they go. My grandparents never shared much of their stories with us growing up and I never knew my grandparents on my father’s side at all – now all their stories are gone forever.
I guess that’s another lesson: cherish what you have and build your foundations around it.
Unsurprisingly then the answer to the above question – how is Maya Angelou as a film director? Bloody brilliant, that’s how.