Review: 'Down in the Delta' less than poetic
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From Reviewer Paul Tatara
(CNN) -- I generally make a point of not mentioning that I disagree with what other critics are saying about the films I cover, mostly because I know all too well how it feels to be taken to task for simply having a different opinion than someone else. But celebrated Renaissance woman Maya Angelou's directorial debut, "Down in the Delta," is receiving above-average notices from a lot of well-known film reviewers, with suspicious phrases like "disarming simplicity" taking the place of actual negative comments.
It really seems that slack is being cut here, that people are unconsciously avoiding the application of true critical thought for fear of denigrating Angelou's good name as an artist.
Well, I'm not too anxious to badmouth her myself. The problem is, I'm reviewing the movie, not Angelou's good intentions, and the movie is downright embarrassing. Angelou's touch as a director is obvious enough to turn "Down in the Delta" into a dignity-oriented high school instructional film all by itself, but first-time screenwriter Myron Goble gives new meaning to the phrase "clunky signifier."
Imagine an episode of "Touched By an Angel," but with a candelabra named Nathan instead of a heavenly spirit, and you've got "Down in the Delta."
Yep, a candelabra named Nathan
I mean it; it's been ages since I've come across a serious-minded screenplay that's this consistently awful. And, yes, you read that right -- I said "a candelabra named Nathan." It's one of the set-in-concrete symbolic plot devices that Goble applies throughout the film like supposedly-poetic peanut butter.
There's also an autistic little girl, a woman with Alzheimer's disease, a child's stuffed animal that's secretly been crammed full of money (and later gets purposefully blasted to bits with a shotgun), and an old tree stump whose rings serve as an opportunity to discuss various moments in African-American history.
All of this is important stuff -- I'm not for a minute making fun of autism, Alzheimer's, or the continuing struggles of African-Americans -- but I'm certainly not going to let them serve as a buffer against clear-eyed criticism.
Alfre Woodard stars as Loretta, a drug-abusing Chicago mother whose own mother (poorly played by Mary Alice) fears for her family's wellbeing. Loretta's young son, Thomas (Mpho Koaho, also pretty bad), has had enough of Loretta's lack of concern for him and his little sister (the one who's so significantly autistic). He's even been hiding what little money he earns inside his stuffed animal so that Mom won't steal it and go partying.
Just in case you're looking down at your popcorn for a second, Angelou sticks this activity right in front of you, film-school style, very early in the picture. She might as well flash the words "THIS IS IMPORTANT" at the bottom of the screen.
Alice finally calls her estranged brother-in-law, Earl (Al Freeman, Jr., giving the most naturalistic, and therefore the best, performance in the movie), and asks if he'll take in Loretta and her kids for a while. You see, Earl doesn't live in the big, bad city. He lives in the Mississippi Delta, where folks are just folks, and kids aren't running around with guns, and hard work is rewarded, and blah, blah, blah, blah.
All that might be a little bit true in reality, but you can just imagine how sun-dappled life is around Earl's home. Deer actually walk out of the woods and step up to the house when Thomas is in the back yard, evidently to spray the area with their life-affirming innocence.
The trip down South is bankrolled by Alice's pawning of a family heirloom, namely (and I do mean namely) Nathan. We get a flashback to the post-Civil War years, where the candelabra's significance is established. Then, after the movie proper is finished, Angelou pointlessly returns to the past and plays the whole thing out again, except in more detail. Everybody in the present day talks about the candelabra as if it's the Ark of the Covenant. If the movie had been set during World War II, Nazis would've snuck over and invaded the pawnshop to get their hands on it.
Snipes proven 'Blade' survivor
The household "down in the Delta" sports the Alzheimer's-stricken aunt (the late Esther Rolle, in her last performance). Loretta goes to work in Earl's chicken restaurant, and, wouldn't you know it, slowly starts to understand the importance of family and belief in oneself.
There's also an odd interlude with Wesley Snipes (who also produced the movie) as a cousin who visits from Atlanta and has trouble dealing with his fast-fading mother. I was glad that Snipes finally pulled himself away from silly action movies to try something of more substance, but there's really nothing for him to do here. He looks great, though, and can still deliver the goods, officially making him the only person who actually survived "Blade."
"Down in the Delta" is almost mind-boggling. How can a woman with the kind of insight that Angelou displays in her poetry and other writings not see that she was dealing with a script that spells things out as if it was written with a big, fat crayon? I guess it's great to deliver a reading at the presidential inauguration, but when all is said and done, what she really wants to do is direct.
She obviously did it for the betterment of humanity, but that's also why I write these reviews. Humanity would be better off if it avoided this movie, and I'm not going to use cheap symbolism to convey the thought.
"Down in the Delta" contains in-your-face drug use, but the moral is also so in your face not even a 5-year-old could construe the substance abuse to be anything but pure, unadulterated evil. Bring a pencil and paper in case you want to take notes on why life is worth living. Rated PG-13. 111 minutes.
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