Warning! Spoilers Ahead!
I love Alfre Woodard. She has been one of the most stellar presences on the screen for the past three decades. So much comes through those big, beautiful expressive eyes that it’s almost impossible not to love her no matter the role she plays. Often, she found herself playing women struggling with crack addiction.
Her role in Down in the Delta is no different. She portrays the troubled Loretta Sinclair. She has become clean and sober, but a setback with a job drives her back to the pull of her addiction. Her mother Rosa Lynn decides she has had enough. She hocks the family heirloom, a candelabra called Nathan, to buy bus tickets to send Loretta and her two children Thomas and Tracy to her brother-in-law Earl’s home in rural Mississippi. She challenges Loretta to get herself together and earn the money to buy back Nathan before it becomes the property of the pawn shop.
Once in Mississippi, Loretta meets Earl’s wife Annie, who suffers from Alzheimer’s. Earl puts Loretta to work in his restaurant Just Chicken, where every item on the menu consists of, well, chicken. Loretta also befriends Annie’s nurse Zenia and confides in her that her daughter Tracy is autistic even though many people think she is a crack baby with behavioral problems.
In the meantime, Earl finds an ingenious way to deal with Thomas’ desire to get a gun and encourage his talent for photography. Most importantly, Earl also tells Loretta stories about their family, the Sinclairs. The stories go all the way back to before the Civil War when her ancestor named Jesse stole the candelabra from the family who owned it and named it Nathan. She also learns how the heirloom has created a rift in her family that must be healed.
Needless to say, Loretta learns to take pride in her family history and why the candelabra holds so much significance. She also learns that she has some value to herself and to the family who loves her. She heals a broken spirit that led her to seek solace in drugs and alcohol.
One of the reasons I love this film so much is because it is a black woman telling a black woman’s story. Maya Angelou directed this film and focuses on the stories of women in a complex way. Loretta is not simply a hopeless addict and a bad mother. She does some things to hurt her children and her family, but she cares for them deeply and wants them to trust her.
Fans of Esther Rolle will also enjoy her performance as Annie in one of her very last screen roles before her death. Loretta Devine also always makes a great screen companion for Woodard and is no exception here. They came together for greater effect in Funny Valentines the next year, but they work together perfectly here as well.
I also appreciate Wesley Snipes’ contribution to this film. He briefly portrays a cousin, Will, but Snipes made a bigger contribution behind the scenes. He served as one of the film’s producers. Snipes has been a huge supporter of black women in film and that support often goes unnoticed, but it is definitely appreciated.
However, I do have one criticism of this film. As a Southerner, I am often dismayed at portrayals of the South that suggest it is stuck behind the times and a great escape from the problems of the “big city.” While there are definitely still rural areas throughout the South, these areas do not escape problems such as substance abuse, violence and crime. When Loretta reaches Mississippi, she has no more issues with addiction as if they magically disappear. In the context of the film, she probably resigns herself to her fate that she’s in the middle of nowhere as far as large cities are concerned, so this is probably why it plays out this way.
Still, Down in the Delta is one of those films made by and for black women much like Eve’s Bayou. It continues to resonate with me because of the strong performances of the cast and the beautiful storytelling. I also appreciate the attention given to Alzheimer’s and autism because I have never seen a film deal with these issues within black families before this one. By the time it all comes together in the end, you have taken a journey through the Sinclair’s story, a story familiar to many African Americans. Maya Angelou does a stellar job with this film about the bonds of black families.