A guide to black films, reviews and resources.

Maya Angelou & Alfre Woodard



By Laurence Washington

 

     There's no doubt that Maya Angelou is one of the 20th century's pre-eminent literary voices, and movie audiences will get a chance to see her poetry transferred to the silver screen in her directing debut of Down In The Delta, which opened nationwide Christmas day. Angelou worked on the Showtime cable television film for two
years.
     Once Angelou was on the project, box office stars Al Freeman Jr. (Malcom X), Alfre Woodard (Star Trek: First Contact), Loretta Divine (Waiting To Exhale) and Wesley Snipes (Blade) jumped on the project for the chance and experience to work with the legendary author. The final product was so well received, Showtime decide to release it first in
theaters.
     "Down In The Delta is a story about women, and the experiences of black women in particular," Snipes says. "If there is anybody who has an understanding of what the experience is to be both a woman and black, it's Maya Angelou."
     Maya Angelou and Emmy winning co-producer Alfre Woodard talked with me about Down In The Delta, its characters, trials of first-time-directing and working together.

Q:
Dr. Angelou, what sort of expectations did you have about directing your first film? And how did the reality of it compare to or exceed your expectations?

Angelou:
I use very little energy in expectations. I've lived long enough to trust that life, whatever I think it will be, will be something else. I wanted to make a great film. So the first day I spoke to the crew and cast. I said, "This is your medium. I write books and teach, but I do want to make a great film. So if you see me do something that's not wise, I'd appreciate if you'd call me up and tell me. Because if I see you do something that's not wise, I won't speak to you in front of everybody, but I will ask you to come a take a walk with me. Now mind you, whatever your suggestion, I my not use it, but I'll appreciate it." So, within three days one of the electricians said, "You know you wanted a certain light on a scene yesterday. Let me show you what has happened." The light was intolerable. So I think the willingness to allow oneself to be taught helps a director a great deal.

Q:
How much control did you have over the film. And were you happy with the final results?

Angelou:
Nobody has control over anything. I know better than that. The things I could see that were not pleasing to me I could ask for change. And I'm very, very pleased with the final product. I was pleased with my one-the-job-training.

Q:
At what point did this film go from being a Showtime production to a theatrical release?

Angelou:
There was a screening of the film in California. And I was told by Showtime that the lowest rating they could except was 35. Anything lower than that, they would not be able to show it on Showtime. But if I could get 49, it would be excellent for me. After the screening, the people from Showtime told me that this never happened. They said, "Your rating was 88. And so that means you're going to have a bidding war." So then Miramax got involved. They screened it in New York and said Los Angeles is a soft market. They said "Don't expect anything like you got in Los Angeles. If you get 60 it's through the roof." The film got 90.

Q:
What was something in the movie, a lesson or message, that you didn't want the audience to leave without?

Angelou:
It is said that a fine writer may have two themes in all his or her work. I have two themes which I hope are present in the books and poetry and the music I compose. The themes are: human beings are more alive than we think they are. The second is, you may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. It may be even necessary to encounter defeat, so you can see who you really are.

Q:
Talk a little about working with Alfre Woodard?

Angelou:
We worked together on American Quilt. All of the actors came to work for peanut shells. I had a budget of $3 million for the crew cast everything. And we came in under budget and under time. It was a four week shoot. But Alfre, those eyes! You can think in the ocean of those eyes. And as a director, I had to apply exquisite discipline to yell cut, because you just keep looking. She's a very tender and tough actor.

Q:
Do you think there is a specific audience for Down In The Delta?

Angelou:
Not really. I hope that human beings are more alike than we are unlike. The film should do very, very, well.

Q:
Alfre, what's it like to be in your first top billing role?

Woodard:
I don't keep track of it that way. I've fronted movies before, I suppose none of those have had theatrical release.

Q:
What attracted you to this movie?

Woodard:
I wanted to do it, because I knew I would do it right. I knew I would do it justice, because I know her. Friends, relatives and myself are elements of Loretta. A lot of times when people bring characters to life who are in crisis, they show them as despondent, awful people. They moralize when they should be  that person from their  point of view. And the truth about Loretta is, yes she is failing at being an adult and a mother, but I like her because I see in her value and the fire and the cleverness that she discovers herself. But I would still feel that way about her, even if she doesn't redeem herself. She has the good fortune of having family that won't let her fail. I like her.

Q:
What did your responsibility as co-producer involve?

Woodard:
Occasionally saying, "Do you agree?" Just being one of the people at the table deciding all the things you decide. Just being in the mix. How I feel about changes in the script, how I want to do my job. It's a way of protecting your opinion about what you are doing.

Q:
Have you seen the film yet with a real audience? And were you happy with their reaction to your character?

Woodard:
Yes. Some audiences are afraid to laugh, because they see this black woman in a very socially stricken sense, and they're seeing the trauma of it all. Some people watch it and it is just familiar, and Loretta is like a family member. And when somebody is completely out to
lunch, they say and do funny things, and say things that you think, but know better than to say. So I think audiences are comfortable within their reality, but when they also know this about a human being, then they're comfortable to laugh when she's being outrageous. But that doesn't mean they don't water up when she can't pull it together. And audiences recognize that mask. And that's what I like about her. Most audiences have been very vocal and engaged.

Q:
I'm curious, you said you had some elements that were much like the lead character's. What are those elements. What is it that makes a difference for you?

Woodard:
I'm a real humanitarian. I'm a good person. And it's not that I haven't been told, but I also like to talk a dirty game same as anybody else. Friends know that, and they like that about me. I grew up in a period of recreational excess, I was a hippie or a bippie. I have been all the way around the way, and I've learned the only thing that separates us from people in crisis is that they have no fail-safe system. When enough is enough.

Q:
How much do you think geography plays in her remission. She goes back to the south, instead of going to the big city like most films?

Woodard:
I grew up in the south and I think the south is where you come alive. When people live closer to the land, they seem to be more readily in touch with their humanity. It humbles you.

Q:
Talk a little bit about working with Maya Angelou. The two of you met on American Quilt. What kind of a director did she prove to be?

Woodard:
I'm not enough of a director to say what kind of director she is. My impression of her as a director is sort of a continuation of my impression of her as an actor, writer, poet and just as a thinker. She is one of those people who has creative intelligence. It translates from job to job. It is not surprising to me that Maya would step into this position and do well.