By Jim Farber
Updated January 08, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST
  • Movie

Maya Angelou — poet and honored cultural personage — makes her feature directing debut with Down In the Delta, a story that draws heavily on Fresh Air Fund philosophy: The surest cure for what ails the troubled modern, industrialized African American is good Southern country living and the love of a family proud of its heritage. Well, sure, but that doesn’t solve the problems of urban ghetto life now, does it? What keeps this particular feel-good fable from stiffening like dried honey are supple, fresh performances, most rewardingly by the always blazing Alfre Woodard as a strung-out single mother going down the tubes in a bullet-pocked Chicago neighborhood, and by Al Freeman Jr. as gracious down-home denizen Uncle Earl, who takes her in for a spell, along with her son and autistic daughter. Basking in the gold Mississippi Delta light — manufactured on location outside of Toronto — the director relaxes her tense Storyteller Grip and gives the strong cast freedom to expand. (Freeman is especially tender with the late Esther Rolle as his wife, bewildered and adrift with Alzheimer’s disease. And for extra star power, producer Wesley Snipes plays Earl’s son, a yuppie with with an admirable desire to support the community of his childhood.) Roots matter, is Angelou’s Hallmark-style lesson. So for good measure, novice screenwriter Myron Goble also includes an unsubtle subplot about a candelabra that has been in the family since slaves were freed, thereby throwing one more ingredient into this thick dramatic gumbo. B

Down in the Delta

  • Movie
  • PG-13
  • Maya Angelou