Poet Maya Angelou’s debut feature directing effort is a solid and affecting piece of work that will need careful marketing and strong critical support to attract ticketbuyers. Originally produced for the Showtime cable network, “Down in the Delta” never really transcends the limitations of an intimate, well-crafted and resolutely old-fashioned TV drama. Still, this emotionally involving story of an African-American family has definite crossover appeal, and could find a receptive audience in wide theatrical release come Christmastime.

Alfre Woodward is excellent as Loretta, a chronically unemployed single mother who lives with her mother, Rosa Lynn (Mary Alice), and two young children in an inner-city Chicago apartment. For too long, Loretta has eased the pain of constant despair with drugs and alcohol, to the point of neglecting her autistic daughter, Tracy (Kulani Hassen). Thomas (Mpho Koaho), her adolescent son, is a bright kid who earns money by photographing tourists. But he’s in danger of becoming a product of his environment, and already talks about getting “strapped” like his gun-toting classmates.

Desperate to move her loved ones out of harm’s way, Rosa Lynn pawns a prized family heirloom, a silver candelabra nicknamed “Nathan,” to send Loretta and her children to the family’s hometown in the Mississippi Delta, where they can spend the summer with Loretta’s Uncle Earl (Al Freeman Jr.) Not surprisingly, Loretta is reluctant to make the journey, especially since Earl lives in a dry county. But when Rosa Lynn plays her trump card — she threatens to contact child-welfare authorities, who may take Loretta’s kids away from her — Loretta agrees to a three-month exile.

Earl, who operates a diner with a small but loyal clientele, already has his hands full with Annie (Esther Rolle), who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease and must be tended by a caregiver, Zenia (Loretta Devine), while he works. Even so, he accepts Loretta and her children into his home, despite a long-running squabble with Rosa Lynn over the ownership of Nathan.

Working from a Nicholls Fellowship Award-winning screenplay by Myron Goble, Angelou moves at an unhurried pace as she spins a familiar but engaging story of regeneration and reconciliation. Much to its credit, “Down in the Delta” avoids many of the more predictable contrivances. Loretta doesn’t find a Mr. Right who straightens up her life, Thomas doesn’t evolve overnight into an accomplished photographer, and, while Tracy manages to speak her first word, her condition remains essentially unchanged. Better still, Goble refuses to rely on the lazy screenwriter’s trick of using a character’s death to resolve conflict and motivate survivors.

Throughout “Down in the Delta,” Angelou and Goble emphasize simple truths and intelligent optimism. Pic places great stock in the strength of family ties and the soul-enhancing value of returning to roots. Wesley Snipes, who also served as co-producer, gives an impressively subtle performance as Will, Earl’s son, who has moved to Atlanta to start a family and pursue a career as a lawyer. He doesn’t move back home — another cliche avoided — but he does lend his help when, late in the story, the locals try to assume control of a chicken-processing plant that is slated for closure.

Even here, however, pic stops short of melodrama, and simply indicates that the ambitious scheme, while not impractical, will require hard, extended work — almost as much work as it takes to rebuild a family.

Woodward infuses her portrayal of Loretta with appealing sass and vitality, but she is equally adept at conveying the character’s self-destructive tendencies. Freeman strikes the right balance of authoritative dignity and warmhearted decency, while Rolle is heart-wrenchingly sympathetic as a woman reduced to a childlike mental state.

Mary Alice is quietly compelling as a strong-willed matriarch who’s willing to risk tough-love tactics. Koaho is appealingly natural as Thomas, and Hassen is thoroughly convincing as his autistic sister.

Although “Down in the Delta” was filmed in and around Toronto, pic persuasively captures the ambiance of rural life in the Deep South. Cinematographer William Wages and production designer Lindsey Hermer-Bell deserve special mention for their contributions.

Down in the Delta

  • Production: A Miramax release of a Showtime presentation of an Amen Ra Films and Chris/Rose production. Produced by Rick Rosenberg, Bob Christiansen, Victor McGauley, Wesley Snipes, Reuben Cannon. Co-producers, Terri Farnsworth, Myron Goble, Alfre Woodward. Directed by Maya Angelou. Screenplay, Myron Goble.
  • Crew: Camera (Deluxe color), William Wages; editor, Nancy Richardson; music, Stanley Clarke; production designer, Lindsey Hermer-Bell; costume designer, Maxyne Baker; sound (Ultra Stereo), Tom Hidderley; assistant director, Michael Zenon; casting, Reuben Cannon & Associates. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentation), Sept. 17, 1998. Running time: 111 MIN.
  • With: Loretta - Alfre Woodward Earl - Al Freeman Jr. Rosa Lynn - Mary Alice Annie - Esther Rolle Zenia - Loretta Devine Will - Wesley Snipes Thomas - Mpho Koaho Tracy - Kulani Hassen Monica - Anne Marie Johnson Dr. Rainey - Justin Lord