Down in the Delta (1998)

Rated PG-13

Starring: Alfre Woodard, Al Freeman, Jr., Esther Rolle and Loretta Devine

Rated:  PG-13 Drama

Down in the Delta, a story of family and the importance of legacy, is centered upon the main character, Loretta Sinclair (Alfre Woodard).  Poorly educated and addicted to drugs, she lives in the housing project apartment of her mother, Rosa Lynn (Mary Alice).  Loretta is the mother of two children, seven-year old Tracy, who is autistic; and thirteen-year old Thomas, who is bright, industrious and, due to her lifestyle, highly responsible. 

After a series of trials, including Thomas displaying his knowledge of the gang culture of their Chicago community; Tracy’s need of constant care; and Loretta’s neglect and immaturity, Rosa Lynn is forced to issue an ultimatum.  Loretta is told that she will take her children to visit the Sinclair family of the Mississippi Delta or Rosa Lynn will report Loretta to Children’s Services, who will surely put Thomas and Tracy in foster care.

She forces Earl Sinclair (Al Freeman, Jr.), her husband’s brother, to accept Loretta and her children visiting.  When he hesitates, she threatens to sell a precious heirloom, an 1852 silver candelabra, belonging to the Sinclair family. 

Rosa Lynn pawns the candelabra and uses the funds to purchase bus tickets for Loretta and her children. Loretta, knowing partially the importance of the heirloom, is frantic about the candelabra not remaining with their family.  To this end, her mother warns Loretta that she has until the end of the summer to get her life together, for herself and for her children, or the heirloom will be sold.

While visiting, Loretta has several things to become accustomed to, including being without access to drugs or even alcohol, as the rural community her family lives in is “dry”.  Her aunt, Annie (Esther Rolle), suffers from Alzheimer’s disease.  Finally, Loretta must work in Earl’s restaurant, which primarily serves cuisine that is chicken-based and locally-sourced.  He, other business owners, and farmers in their small community are fighting for their economic survival.  These circumstances further reveal certain weaknesses of Loretta.

As Loretta and her children try to better lives well as build their connection with Uncle Earl, Aunt Annie and their family, challenges arise and secrets of the Sinclair family’s complicated past are revealed.  Will Loretta be able to restore and develop herself for her family … and will it be in time for her to return to Chicago to secure their heirloom and strengthen their legacy?  This is definitely a film you want to view to learn of its resolution!

Based on a contest-winning screenplay by Myron Goble, Down in the Delta was directed by highly-acclaimed, African-American poet and author, Maya Angelou.  The film, a limited-theatre release, did well financially and received praise from critics.  In his review of the film, Roger Ebert extolled, “If this sounds perhaps like a morality play, it’s because no summary can explain the effect of the details in the film.  Woodard’s performance as Loretta is good at illustrating her problems without ever making her pathetic.  Al Freeman, recently seen in Once Upon a Time … When We Were Colored, is one of the most convincing and natural of actors.  And the atmosphere of the Delta is evoked in side stories involving the closure of a chicken plant, and the visit of Earl’s son (Wesley Snipes), a lawyer from Atlanta … It illustrates that a strong story, deeply felt, and engendered outside the Hollywood assembly line, is likely to get its effects from observation, instead of by following the lazy outlines of formulas from the screenwriting tutors.”

The film has an accompanying soundtrack that features artists such as D’Angelo, Stevie Wonder, Chaka Khan, Jazzyfatnastees f. The Roots, Sounds of Blackness, Tracie Spencer and Sweet Honey in the Rock.