Consumed by fears of inner-city violence and the traumatic effects of the crack epidemic, “Down in the Delta” didn’t lead to a career in filmmaking for the writer Maya Angelou. Instead, 25 years later, the inspiring yet uniquely flawed film remains her lone directorial feature.
Though a Black fantasy unbound by a specific place and time, it’s a film whose conversations with the socioeconomic realities of the 1990s, the proliferation of hood movies, and the strategy for Black resistance, now, would appear dated. But the script’s idyllic return to the South has newfound resonance for the contemporary reverse-migration taking place in many northern Black neighborhoods affected by the consequences of decades of redlining, deindustrialization and divestment.
“Down in the Delta” opens on the South Side of Chicago, where the sound of blaring sirens and hovering helicopters pierce apartment windows, such as the one belonging to Rosa Lynn Sinclair (Mary Alice), the steady mother of Loretta (a perceptive Alfre Woodard), an unemployed single mother who feeds her autistic daughter, Tracy (Kulani Hassen), soda in lieu of milk and, through her drug use, persistently disappoints her only son, the artistically inclined Thomas (Mpho Koaho). To save her family, a vexed Rosa Lynn pawns “Nathan,” a silver-plated candelabra dating to the antebellum period, for bus tickets, sending Loretta and her children to Mississippi to live under the care of their Uncle Earl (Al Freeman Jr.). The sojourn isn’t a cakewalk for Loretta. Not only is she there to sober up, but she must also earn enough money working at Earl’s chicken joint to buy Nathan back, or else permanently lose the heirloom.
Considering Angelou’s autobiographies — particularly, “Gather Together in My Name” — you can see why Myron Goble’s script about the power of family appealed to her. Cinematically, kin as a restorative force for Black folks was covered in George Tillman Jr.’s “Soul Food” (1997). And since “Down in the Delta,” “Kingdom Come,” “The Secret Life of Bees” and Tyler Perry’s Madea character have walked similar paths.
From the moment Loretta arrives in the Delta, Angelou broadly juxtaposes the opportunities lost and gained between North and South. In the South there’s no crime, poverty, squabbles or gossip. Unlike the young Black men of Chicago, flatly depicted as predators, the people of this genteel town emit rural warmth: The cinematographer William Wages’s honeyed lens captures inviting dirt country roads and lush beds of grass; the composer Stanley Clarke’s tender score further beckons repose.
In this town, crack houses, a staple of urban angst cinematically depicted in “New Jack City” and “Jungle Fever,” are replaced with manicured family plots and quaint Queen Anne-style homes. This community longs for the past, whether it’s Earl yearning for Nathan or Earl’s wife, Annie (Esther Rolle), who has Alzheimer’s and pines for her mother. The area’s lone worry is the impending closing of the chicken plant, a threat quietly swept away almost as quickly as it appears.
The importance of the South as a site for restorative justice resides in Nathan, whose frame, in a film prizing trees as markers of time and lineage, carries obvious symbolism. The candle holder’s back story, the bounty for the selling of an enslaved Sinclair, ultimately repossessed by another descendant for recompense, bears in mind the fracturing of Black families during bondage. Earl believes the return of Nathan to Mississippi might revitalize the town, reuniting the family while metaphorically mending the rift between North and South. It’s a wish that inspires the film’s desire for a reverse Great Migration.
As early as the 1970s, Black people were already returning South. Though millions of African Americans arrived North to escape Jim Crow violence, in their new communities they discovered some of the same prejudices. The era’s hope and optimism felt by those first migrators, recorded in the painter Jacob Lawrence’s indelible “Migration” series, has been replaced. For instance, in Llewellyn M. Smith and Sam Pollard’s documentary “South to Black Power,” Charles M. Blow, an Opinion columnist for The New York Times, hopes by reclaiming the South, political weight can be consolidated on a state level by Black people.
In Angelou’s hands, however, reverse migration isn’t a subversive strategy. Rather it’s an uncomplicated balm. Loretta’s return to loving arms in Mississippi ends her drug habit, gives Tracy her first words, and helps this single mother, who just learned how to add and subtract, envision a future totally unencumbered by institutional racism.
Because in “Down in the Delta,” the road to racial uplift is a youth movement cleanly paved by economic self-reliance. When the town’s chicken plant closes, the entrepreneurial Will hopes to acquire it for his dad’s chicken restaurant, a Black-owned small business, to revitalize the area. When Loretta learns how Will helps Black businesses, she dreams of running the factory herself.
Financial independence becomes a method for memorializing a storybook past for future generations while imagining newfound prosperity; a dream that has reverberated since 40 acres and a mule were first promised, and then became a nightmare when Tulsa, Okla., burned in 1921. Angelou’s “Down in the Delta” is a retelling of a broken contract that still speaks to migrators today.