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Just Chicken

[whitespace] Down in the Delta What's It All About, Alfre? Alfre Woodard's Loretta sticks up for free enterprise in 'Down in the Delta.'

Mark Holzberg

Maya Angelou's directing debut is nothing to crow about

By Richard von Busack

THE INDEPENDENT FILM Down in the Delta is first-time director Maya Angelou's idea of what this country needs. The surprising thing is that her idea of what this country needs is exactly what Newt Gingrich thought this country needed: free enterprise, private schools, tight families and meat on the table. What's wrong with all this? It's what--or rather, whom--you have to sacrifice to achieve them that matters. The simplicity with which the Sinclair family reorganizes itself in Down in the Delta defies you to take the long, Capraesque family drama more seriously than any other fantasy on the screens today.

Out of a drug-ridden Chicago project, unmarried mom Loretta (Alfre Woodard) and her two children take the bus to rural Mississippi. They're going to stay with their Uncle Earl (veteran actor and director Al Freeman Jr.). The elder man runs a restaurant called Just Chicken, and he hires Loretta to cook and wait tables. Her two troubled children respond well to the fresh air and farm living. Eventually cousin Will (Wesley Snipes) arrives with his fancy, bitchy wife, Monica (Anne Marie Johnson), in tow. Minor tragedies are surmounted easily, and by the end of the summer Loretta is a changed woman--even her autistic child is starting to communicate.

That Loretta could leave a life of drinking and playing around for the countryside is something of a joke; there's just as much drinking and playing around in the sticks as there is in the city. The big fallacy of the movie is Loretta's lack of a love interest. She may have lost interest in men, but wouldn't the men have been interested in her? In a rural restaurant, a woman like Woodard, clad in very tight dresses, her splendid legs bare, would be as inconspicuous as a full-scale model of the Statue of Liberty. Sultry isn't half the word for her.

Woodard helped produce this pious tale, and it was a wise investment for her; if nothing else, Down in the Delta demonstrates how much the movies are missing. Woodard, who usually gets much too small supporting roles, gets to cut loose here. She is a fierce performer, as strong as Judy Davis (whom she resembles), and she smolders her way through the film. Woodard has one special scene in which Snipes asks her if she's ever known what it's like to get everything you've wanted, only to find out you don't want it anymore. "No, I haven't. And no, I haven't gotten it," she snaps.

Even Snipes--you could hear a rustle of appreciation in the theater when he turns up--is quite upstaged. Woodard deserves better than morning-in-America propaganda that ends with her lecture on potential given to a restaurant full of newly unemployed chicken pluckers. In stressing family values as a cure for every conceivable social problem from Alzheimer's disease to gunfire in the projects, Angelou goes beyond the neoconservatives all the way back to Victorianism.

Down in the Delta (PG-13; 111 min.), directed by Maya Angelou, written by Myron Goble, photographed by William Wages and starring Alfre Woodard and Wesley Snipes.

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From the January 7-13, 1999 issue of Metro.

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