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The Heart of a Storyteller

With 'Down in the Delta,' a family saga set in the South, Maya Angelou--author, teacher, actress and more--is realizing a longtime dream of directing her own film.

December 13, 1998|ERIC HARRISON | Eric Harrison is a Calendar staff writer

Snipes compares the film to "Soul Food," another African American family drama, but he declares it more compassionate. A more apt comparison may be the works of Alex Haley. "Delta" operates as a compressed "Roots" saga for ordinary people, the vast majority of African Americans who can't trace their ancestry back past the snarl of slavery. The South, then, is their ancestral home. While down South, Woodard is made whole, her autistic daughter speaks for the first time, and her dissatisfied big-city cousin starts to discover purpose.

At the center of the story is a totemic object--a candelabra stolen from the mantel of the white family who owned Woodard's ancestors as slaves, the masters who broke up the family by swapping one of her ancestors for the silver heirloom. Called "Nathan" after the slave it was used to pay for, the treasured candelabra has been passed down through the generations.

It would seem to be a symbol of the ancestor's spirit and of slavery's pain while representing the family's triumph over that pain--similar to the way the piano functioned in August Wilson's Pulitzer Prize-winning play "The Piano Lesson." But Angelou says it's wrong to think of the heirloom as mere symbol.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday December 20, 1998 Home Edition Calendar Page 87 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 22 words Type of Material: Correction
Producer--Rick Rosenberg, one of the producers of "Down in the Delta," was misidentified last Sunday in an article on Maya Angelou, the film's director.

"As far as I was concerned, the candelabra became the man," she says. "His descendants thought of the candelabra as the man himself. Did you see the way [a character in the movie] held it?" Angelou cradles an invisible figure, a man, in her arms. "It wasn't a symbol."


"Down in the Delta" was written by first-time screenwriter Myron Goble. Although it won him the prestigious Nicholls Fellowship in 1993, it was a difficult script to get made.

Amen Ra, Snipes' production company, optioned it at one point but let the option lapse. And when the production team of Rick Richards and Bob Christiansen acquired it, they found little enthusiasm for the project in Hollywood. They deduced that the only way to get it made was to attach a marquee-name actress. But the list of bankable black actresses is short. If only a few said no, the pool would be depleted; no movie would be made.

The producers turned to Reuben Cannon for help. The veteran casting director produced Spike Lee's "Get on the Bus," a road movie about a group of black men headed to the Million Man March in Washington. He secured financing through "15 Black Men," a group of friends including Snipes, Danny Glover and Will Smith. His idea for generating heat for "Down in the Delta" involved Angelou.

He had met and become friends with her in 1982 when he worked on an NBC miniseries called "Sister, Sister," which she wrote. "I knew she'd directed theater, and I knew she'd written screenplays, and I knew she was a master storyteller," he says. "I told Rick that her involvement would attract the actors."

He was right. After Angelou signed on as director, Woodard agreed to star, and Snipes came back on board.

Cannon became a producer on "Delta," which reportedly was made for $3.5 million. His company, Star Rise Entertainment, hopes to produce Angelou's second feature, an adaptation of James Baldwin's play "The Amen Corner." He says he is negotiating for rights. The company has three films in development, he says, all budgeted at $1 million to $3 million and all aimed specifically at an African American audience. By keeping costs low, he says, he will eliminate the need to produce mass crossover hits.

The irony, especially of Angelou's participation as director generating the juice to get a movie made, is that she had met resistance to her directing for decades.

She had directed documentaries and shorts for PBS and the American Film Institute, and she had studied cinematography in the 1970s. But no one would hire her to direct a movie or television feature. "I had [acted in] 'Roots' with the hope that I would get to direct one of the segments," she says. "Nobody knew 'Roots' was going to become the phenomenon that it became."

She also had hoped to direct the 1979 film adaptation of "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," which she co-scripted. A reference book published while the film was being made said she would be the credited director. It didn't happen, and the experience embittered her.

Angelou's face ordinarily is the image of becalmed benevolence. This is one of the few times that her smile leaves her. She doesn't go into detail, but she says her treatment with that movie "almost turned me off" directing.

It took little persuasion, though, to get her to direct "Delta." She liked the script, but meeting the Georgia-born screenwriter was what cinched it.

"I thought that he was very intelligent," she says. "I can trust someone who's intelligent even if I don't agree with them, because I know that he or she at least will be willing to discuss it."

Goble is not African American, which caused concern for some. "One of the actors said to me, 'I don't like this white boy because he doesn't know our culture.' I said, 'Don't worry about it--I know our culture.' "

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