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Down in the Delta

U.S. Poet Laureate Maya Angelou branches out into filmmaking with this predictable but sometimes moving story of frayed family bonds and their renewal. Saintly Rosa (Mary Alice) lives in a run-down Chicago housing project with her irresponsible, 30-ish daughter Loretta (Alfre Woodard) and two young grandchildren, Thomas (Mpho Koaho) and Tracy (Kulani Hassen). Intelligent, conscientious Thomas and autistic Tracy are frequently neglected by their mother, whose primary interest is in partying in the 'hood. After one particularly harrowing bender, Rosa loses patience and presents Loretta with an ultimatum: She can take the kids down South to Uncle Earl's (Al Freeman) for the summer, or she can relinquish them to social services. As an added incentive for Loretta to shape up, Rosa hocks Nathan -- a beloved family heirloom -- to pay for the bus tickets. Stern, disciplined Earl already has his hands full running a restaurant and taking care of his wife Annie (the late Esther Rolle), who has Alzheimer's disease, and wants only two things out of life: The return to the Delta of his son, Atlanta-based lawyer Will (Wesley Snipes), and Nathan, the only candelabra with a name you're ever likely to encounter. Of course, Loretta and the kids blossom in the orderly rural setting, and from that point forward the story goes more than a little flat: There are only a few predictable bumps on the road to an all too-tidy resolution. The film's cable TV movie origins are especially evident in the painfully obvious symbolic weight attached to Nathan, whose origins are revealed in embarrassing flashback. Loretta's leap from Chicago slag to Southern entrepreneur and super mom is a little hard to buy, but Woodard's performance goes a long way to mitigating the movie's sanctimonious streak. What couldn't this actress do with better material?