That in mind, we shouldn't be startled that Angelou's debut as a feature film director (aided by a crash course in cinematography) is an artistic and emotional success. Down in the Delta, a lovely meditation on the value of perseverance and the power of familial love, is imbued, every frame of it, with this extraordinary writer's unfailing poetic sense and the unshakable belief she's shown throughout her long career that the strong don't just survive adversity, they defeat it.
The heroine of the piece, which was written by a young Georgian named Myron Goble, is Loretta Sinclair (Alfre Woodard), a single mother who, when we first see her, is on the verge of disaster. Jobless and exhausted, Loretta has fallen prey to temptation in some of Chicago's meanest streets: She's into booze and dope, and she can't find much time for her two children -- sweet, preteen Thomas (Mpho Koaho), who tries to make his way by shooting $5 Polaroids of tourists in the park, and little Tracy (Kulani Hassen), who's autistic and spends her days shrieking in her crib. In Woodard's lovely face we see the weariness and sorrow of the ages: She looks like a fallen Egyptian queen.
Before Loretta's spirit is extinguished, though, her desperate but wise mother Rosa Lynn (Mary Alice) has a last-ditch idea. She'll send Loretta and the kids for the summer to the Sinclairs' ancestral home in the Mississippi Delta -- for fresh air, open space and, possibly, the ministrations of the family patriarch, Uncle Earl (Al Freeman Jr.). But first we learn a crucial piece of Sinclair history: The family's only heirloom (and the symbolic cement of their love) is a silver candelabra nicknamed "Nathan," which has been passed down through the generations since pre-Civil War days, and which now must pay a visit to the pawn shop so that Loretta and her children can get a second chance at life.
The moment at which Rosa Lynn poses for a parting snapshot with Nathan -- if things go wrong, the Sinclair family heritage will be lost forever -- is one of the most memorable in the movie, beautifully and economically observed by director Angelou.
Down in the Delta does not mark the first time an urbanized African-American family has reversed the migratory pattern of yore and returned to its nurturing roots in the South. In Toni Morrison's 1977 novel Song of Solomon, for instance, a young black Northerner goes south to search for hidden gold but discovers something more valuable -- his family's rich history.
So it happens here. Loretta lands on Uncle Earl's neat doorstep as a disconsolate, wary burnout without a dream in her heart; in a couple of months she and her vulnerable children are born again through Uncle Earl's tough-and-tender love, the homey comforts of his fried-chicken restaurant, the pluck of his housekeeper (Loretta Devine) and, it seems, the ancient embrace of the black South itself.
Uncle Earl has some troubles of his own: a wife afflicted with Alzheimer's (the great character actress Esther Rolle, who died just last month); an unhappy son, Will (Wesley Snipes) who has escaped to Atlanta; and economic woes loom over the town. But wise, kindly Earl is a household saint, and the red dirt he walks on seems holy.
If anything in Down in the Delta feels contrived, at least superficially, it's this vision of rural Mississippi as Eden -- a sentiment heightened by cinematographer William Wages's glowing views of corn waving in the breeze and golden sunsets at river's edge. But Angelou's unwavering spirit and this terrific cast soon overwhelm any doubts cynics may have: Not only do Loretta and cousin Will revitalize themselves through an inventive business project, the kids perk up, and -- if I don't miss my guess -- the whole county gets a much-needed shot in the arm.
Talk about affirmation: In less than two hours we are catapulted out of the slough of despondency into the heights of spiritual and economic redemption. The best part is that almost nothing about it feels phony. Maya Angelou, ever the poet and magician, gives us an uplifting vision of an imperfect family revitalized by love and devotion, and she compels us to believe every word, every image, every emotion of it. As for "Nathan," don't count on his remaining in hock back in Chicago for very long; there's a lot more of that story to tell, too.
In sum, Down in the Delta is quite an accomplishment for a first-time director who's already shown her mettle in 15 or 20 previous occupations. Now that she's conquered the movies, maybe Angelou should get off her duff and go after a real job -- like running for president in 2000. We'd likely all be a lot better off if she did.