This week’s film is directed by an absolutely phenomenal writer and creative mind, Maya Angelou. Shockingly–or perhaps not so shockingly given the lack of opportunities for women of color in Hollywood–this was Angelou’s only feature film as a director, made all the more disappointing for its moving story and powerful characters. And things don’t seem much different 20 years later…in our efforts to watch more films with Black directors, a mere fraction have been Black women.
Let’s stop this madness because I want more films like this one.
Down in the Delta
Spending the summer in Mississippi, a single mother reconnects with her extended family and their shared history as she reconsiders her future.
In 1990s Chicago, single mother Loretta struggles to make a living for herself and her children, but her addiction to alcohol and drugs frequently sabotage her good intentions. Luckily, her mother Rosa Lynn lives with the family and takes primary responsibility for watching the children, nonverbal Tracy and upbeat Thomas. Though teenage Thomas is ready to step up and help the family, earning money by taking pictures of tourists, it’s difficult to imagine an easy path ahead, as he’s so accustomed to the sounds of gunfire that he can identify the type of weapon based on the gunshots he hears.
After Loretta fails yet again to land a job, she spends the day drinking at the playground, only returning home late at night. Frustrated with her daughter and having recently heard from her estranged brother in small town Biloxi, Mississippi, Rosa Lynn insists Loretta and the children head to the South for a visit. Pawning off Nathan, a silver candelabra that has been in the family since the 1850s, Rosa Lynn warns her daughter she has until September to earn the money to reclaim the family heirloom.
Loretta’s uncle Earl lives in the Big House, a former plantation manor the Black side of the Sinclair family bought from the white Sinclairs shortly after the Civil War. A restaurateur, Earl owns and manages a place that exclusively serves chicken dishes, including at least 20 varieties of chicken sausage.
Immediately, Loretta feels judged by her uncle and objects to all of his stern rules, including keeping the front door locked at all times. However, most of these rules exist as he struggles to care for his wife, Annie, who has fairly advanced Alzheimer’s. Luckily, caretaker and housekeeper Zenia is around to look out for Annie and the family.
As Loretta works in the restaurant, she also gets to know Earl and the family’s history better. She eventually uncovers the meaning behind Nathan’s importance, as well as Earl’s enduring bitterness surrounding Rosa Lynn’s “kidnapping” of the candelabra years ago. The family traces its history all the way back to Jesse Sinclair, who was born into slavery, and his descendants, who all lived in the same house and are buried in the same cemetery.
Largely so Wesley Snipes can make an appearance, Loretta meets her cousin Will, a corporate lawyer who has disappointed his father by leaving Biloxi. However, it’s with Will’s help that Loretta begins to plan greater things for the chicken restaurant and envision a future connected more closely to the family’s roots. But isn’t Chicago Loretta’s home…and where her mother will expect her to return?
4/5 Pink Panther Heads
The symbolism of Nathan as both intergenerational trauma and shared family history is brilliantly done. As a family fractured by time and circumstance, and still contending with the legacy of slavery, the candelabra represents the desperately needed reunion of the Sinclairs. At the same time, there is a significant amount of pain that comes along with reclaiming history.
Our excellent cast brings the characters to life in a way that makes the family’s dissolution feel real without casting blame. Loretta makes her share of mistakes and causes pain to others, but we’re always rooting for her and all of the Sinclairs.
There are, however, a couple of things that don’t work for me. I’m not a huge fan of the way Chicago is depicted here–it buys into stereotypes about Black poverty and violence but ignores racist systems. Also the way Loretta’s addiction just sort of disappears as soon as she’s in a dry county and reconnected with her family borders on divine intervention.
But this is still a moving family drama that makes me wish for more films like this directed by Maya Angelou.
2 thoughts on “Down in the Delta, or: In the Manor with the Candlestick”
I completely agree about the addiction angle. I actually meant to focus on it but obviously got distracted, much like the issue itself because I forgot.
Lovely review my love of a lovely film. You’re also right that the world should of got more Maya Angelou the director, ‘cos she absolutely nailed her first (and last) assignment. Obviously.
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