Our Day Will Come

Dancing at Lughnasa
Uptown Theatre, starts Friday

Down in the Delta
area theaters, starts Friday

Birds of a feather: Alfre Woodard and Loretta Devine in Maya Angelou's Down in the Delta
Birds of a feather: Alfre Woodard and Loretta Devine in Maya Angelou's Down in the Delta

area theaters, starts Friday

Shakespeare in Love
area theaters, starts Friday

The current Hollywood version of so-called women's pictures reminds me of the girl-group phenomenon of the early '60s. The main character, or voice, is always a woman, although duets with the right, complementary man have their place. Content focuses on relationships, whether romantic, maternal, or sisters-are-doing-it-for-themselves; the PMS tone swings from ecstatic to devastated and back, with little ground in between. Women don't usually write the words these females mouth, nor do they control where or how they are uttered (if they're uttered at all). When women do write, direct, or produce, they're generally careful to color within the lines--Nora Ephron plays Carole Goffin-King in Hollywood's new Brill Building. Likewise, an actress can wring drama and beauty from these constricted stories, but she remains a caged bird, singing.

In this light, Pat O'Connor's Dancing at Lughnasa could appear, with a good bit of squinting, as an anti-women's-picture women's picture. The five aging Mundy sisters, led by Meryl Streep's precisely accented Kate, scratch out a living in rural Donegal, 1936. The only solace in their flat life comes from the sprightly airs on the radio; when their uncle, a benignly senile missionary, returns from Africa, conscientious Catholic Kate bans popular music from the house. Priests, she avers, don't dance. Father Jack (Michael Gambon) does, though--or did, when in Africa--and Kate spends most of the rest of the film trying to stomp out his "pagan" sensuality, and her sisters', too. None of these canaries will warble, if she can help it.

Dancing at Lughnasa began as a stage play written by Brian Friel, and it has retained a cramped and literary style. When, despite Kate's best efforts, fun is had in Donegal, we don't feel the characters' delight; we're told of it. The movie's least effective scene was obviously meant to be its most expansive and cathartic: A bit of song gradually invites all the sisters into a whirling, crack-the-whip jig symbolizing some kind of nondoctrinal spiritual union--except that the players (including the director) are so grimly determined to be transported that no one comes close. Dancing at Lughnasa defaults on the women's picture promise: to make ordinary women's constrained lives look heroic, tragic, or at least important. More due to incompetence than intent, O'Connor portrays these marginal, insignificant Irish women as, well, marginal and insignificant. It's as if bad production had dragged the tempo and smeared the spirit of "One Fine Day" until the Chiffons sounded like they were singing scared in the dark: This might be true, but it isn't especially compelling.

Poet and memoirist Maya Angelou, she of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, may be no more capable a director, but her debut feature certainly doesn't lack for import. Written by Myron Goble as a sort of Diana Ross, been-to-hell-and-back vehicle, Down in the Delta kidnaps that media star--the alcoholic, unemployable welfare mother--and whips her into shape with some old-fashioned notions of family loyalty and responsibility. Loretta (Alfre Woodard) has been stoned, it seems, since she bore an autistic child and the father ran off. Her saintly mother Rosa Lynn (Mary Alice) cares for ungovernable Tracy (Kulani Hassen) and a frustrated older son, Thomas (Mpho Koaho), in a tiny Chicago projects apartment, while Loretta dozes. Fearing for the children and fed up with Loretta, Rosa Lynn sends the whole lot down to her brother-in-law Earl (Al Freeman Jr.) in rural Mississippi for the summer.

To buy bus tickets, Rosa Lynn pawns her one family heirloom, a silver candelabra cryptically named Nathan. The unfolding of the Nathan story turns out to be Down in the Delta's one shy and startling pleasure. A more mundane mystery is how so many talented artists (Wesley Snipes also stars and co-produces) could fashion such a stock story. Angelou's elementary direction doesn't help: Like some Hallmark TV movie, each scene is played at maximum intensity, so there's little sense of an overall emotional arc. And the acting cries out for a tighter rein: Mary Alice simply yells her self-righteous Laurel Avenue matriarch at a higher pitch; while Woodard's twitching impersonation of a bad actress impersonating a drunk was so convincing I didn't recognize her until Loretta dried out.

As a women's picture that is also an African-American picture, Down in the Delta cheers its protagonist on in her journey up from the contemporary slavery of addiction to self-confidence and a fatter bank account. Unsurprisingly given this genre's conservatism, the movie's vision of good living is a South where black folks can afford black domestic help. Despite, or because of, the hard nut of deprivation at its heart, Angelou's film touts the kind of (increasingly quixotic) all-American values Clarence Thomas would wave a flag over: bootstrap economic uplift; small business ownership; focus on the family (never mind all those lost Northern souls without a prosperous uncle in Mississippi). Ain't it the truth: God blesses the child who's got her own.


Of course, the rich have their own problems, which, if Stepmom is any indication, chiefly involve a lack of imagination. As executive producers who participated in script rewrites, Susan Sarandon and Julia Roberts have helped bring to life a Frankenstein of a women's picture, stitched together with scenes from 20 years of mainstream movie highlights. Indeed, every moment is so familiar that the movie could be a greatest hits medley--like one of those three-minute Motown artist wrap-ups stretched to two hours. Let's see: We've got white-folks-joyously-lip-synching-to-Marvin Gaye (The Big Chill); lost-child-found-at-police-station (One Fine Day); parents-at-kids'-soccer-match (first instance obscured by general overuse); and children-in-divorce-crossfire (Kramer vs. Kramer, Mrs. Doubtfire, etc.). And that merely covers the minor hits--the monster's appendages.

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