* In her wrenching feature Down in the Delta, Maya Angelou offers a scene in a grimy Chicago pawn shop that evokes the stubborn hope of the lines she read moments after President Clinton began his first term of office on a windy January morning in 1993.
Rosa Lynn, a distraught but determined African American matriarch played by Mary Alice, hocks a silver candelabra that has been in her family for six generations. The money will pay for bus tickets to spirit her drug-addicted daughter, Loretta (Alfre Woodard), and two grandchildren back to Mississippi.
The pawning of the heirloom - an image of light, hope and pride - could easily curdle into a moment of maudlin sentimentality. Yet Down in the Delta builds toward Rosa Lynn's bargaining session with such heartfelt grace and understated honesty that this pivotal exchange plays with extraordinary emotional power. It's the kind of risk-taking rare in any movie and nearly unheard of in a director's first film.
But Down in the Delta, which opens nationwide on Friday, is more than just another directing debut: It is the first feature from America's most beloved living poet.
Angelou has entered a field teeming with film-school wunderkinder at the age of 70, when most directors have retired to polish their acceptance speeches for the Lifetime Achievement Award banquet tossed by the American Film Institute. Her imposing accomplishment, which draws on the wisdom of a lifetime and the art of a consummate storyteller, prompts the obvious question of why it took so long.
``Oh, I've wanted to direct for 25 years or so, but the opportunity never came,'' explained Angelou, who has directed plays and made documentaries and short films, but was never given the chance to do a feature. Down in the Delta makes it clear how great our loss has been.
The promotional launch for Angelou's tough, unsparing family celebration came three months ago at the Toronto Film Festival, where the novice director and her movie won a standing ovation. Putting a poet in the world of movie marketing leads to some bizarre contrasts. In a suite of temporary offices taken by various film companies and publicity firms, Angelou was surrounded by the bedlam of phones, faxes and wall-to-wall hype for various pictures, some now already forgotten in the never-ending scramble for the moviegoer's dollar.
In the midst of it all sat Angelou, an island of serenity. Her voice was soft and lilting, and her eyes took in the scene with an expression that hovered somewhere between bewilderment and amusement. This is a world where it comes as naturally as breathing for actors and directors to deliver exact 10-second ``what really attracted me to the project'' sound bites to Entertainment Tonight and the other Hollywood chat factories.
Ask Angelou a question, however, and you are virtually guaranteed a story. It may be folk tale from Ghana, her chaotic experience writing for a Swedish film director, or a fable by an obscure South American author whom you really ought to read. It's storytelling that comes to her as easily as breathing, and she says it's the way she teaches her students at Wake Forest University.
It was the directness of the story in Myron Goble's script that touched her, said Angelou, whose acting appearances include roles in Roots and How to Make an American Quilt. When the producers brought it to her home in Winston-Salem, N.C., ``I was reluctant at first. But then, as I read the script, I recognized a lot of the themes that I've written about in my own work,'' she remembered. ``It was like being in a foreign country and hearing somebody speak your language. It was a story . . . that said if human beings can lift themselves up like this, then there is a God.''
In Down in the Delta, Rosa Lynn and Loretta have a lot of heavy lifting to do. Loretta, a welfare mother more interested in crack, booze and parties, neglects her autistic young daughter, Tracy, and Thomas, a promising boy on the brink of his teens who is facing the many temptations of the street. Rosa Lynn pawns the symbol of the family's past to give it some hope of a future. In Mississippi, they will spend the summer with Loretta's uncle Earl (Al Freeman Jr.), who has his own problems.
Earl's wife, Annie, movingly played in a valedictory performance by the late Esther Rolle, suffers from Alzheimer's disease, and his business, a small diner, is threatened by the economic woes besetting many small towns. Loretta is, to put it mildly, not a happy camper in exile from her former pleasures.
With dysfunctional-family pictures such as Happiness and The Celebration dominating the Toronto Film Festival, Down in the Delta sounded a defiantly positive note. Given Angelou's own hard road through life, her role as spokeswoman for the bright side may seem miraculous. After all, as she puts it bluntly, ``I responded to [Delta's story] because of my own life. I was abandoned [by her father] at 3. I was raped at 7 [by her mother's lover, who was convicted but died before he served any prison time]. I had a baby without a husband at 17. I've been knocked down a few times. But I believe in stories that are filled with some hope. Whoever said there are too many directors making movies who have seen Pulp Fiction too many times was right.''
Angelou has published 22 books, including her best-selling 1970 autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and has enjoyed a multi-hyphenated career as writer-teacher-political activist-actress-producer-dancer-historian-storyteller and all-around icon that makes the description renaissance woman seem inadequate.
As a master weaver of tales, she was well aware that the basic ingredients of Down in the Delta have been the subject of many films, good and bad. It's terrain where it's difficult to avoid 'hood cliches.
Angelou solved that problem with characteristic simplicity: The film's point of view is from those at ground zero - Rosa Lynn, Loretta and the children.
``All we hear about are the aberrations. There are so many black families that are functioning,'' said Angelou. ``The drama in their lives isn't about running from the police. It's about having something on the table to eat, and maybe a place to party on Saturday night.
``I wanted to tell their story and not get on a soapbox. I tried to layer things so people will get it on different levels.''
In Down in the Delta's family, the heirloom candelabra is affectionately called Nathan. And since this is an Angelou project, there is, of course, a story attached. One of the family's ancestors, a slave named Nathan, was sold in exchange for that candelabra. The barter broke up a tightly knit family. A relative later stole the candelabra, and it stayed in the family through the years as an almost totemic emblem.
When one of the white producers questioned whether Rosa Lynn's family would own such expensive silver, Angelou, who grew up poor in her grandmother's house in Stamps, Ark., brought out her sister's silver oyster plates.
``We've had them forever,'' she said. ``The majority of black people are like the majority of white people. We all want the same things in life - to be safe and healthy, and to have someone to love.''
African American filmmakers have been dismayed by the tepid response that black audiences have given such splendid and affirmative works as Spike Lee's Get on the Bus. But they are still trying. The producers of Down in the Delta include Reuben Cannon, who was a driving force behind Lee's film about the Million Man March. The $3.5 million budget for Down in the Delta comes mostly from Fifteen Black Men, a group of prominent entertainment-industry figures that includes Will Smith, Danny Glover and Wesley Snipes, who took a small but important role as Earl's son in the picture.
Angelou is confident that Down in the Delta will find an audience, and Miramax has clearly seconded her by opening the film against ferocious Christmas Day competition.
``There's so much gloom and doom,'' mused Angelou over the endless ringing of phones in Toronto. ``I really believe that every time a human being wins, we all win. If it's easy to get what you want to achieve, then I'm glad for you. If it's very difficult, then I'm overcome. I'm heartened by the stories of struggle. I like to take a lemon and try to make lemonade.''