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Alfre Woodard's `Delta' not black and white

It started like this. We were talking about her new film "Down in the Delta," where Alfre Woodard plays a hard-drinking woman from the Chicago projects who gets a fresh start on her uncle's farm in the Mississippi Delta. It is a good film, strong and touching, the directorial debut of the writer Maya Angelou. It opens Christmas Day. I said to Woodard, "You've never really made yourself available for exploitation, have you?"

"How do you mean, made myself available?"

You haven't been in them.


Have you? I'm trying to think . . .


And that started us on an extraordinary conversation about the position of a gifted black actress in America today. But before we get to it, pause for a moment to consider her career.

Alfre Woodard has had more success than most young women who start out hoping for employment as an actor. She's starred in 28 films and a lot of stage and TV work - everything from the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., to the New York Shakespeare Festival. Her first big movie role was for Robert Altman, as the hotel manager in "Health" (1978). She was nominated for an Oscar in 1983, for "Cross Creek." She's played Winnie Mandela opposite Danny Glover, and a Bob Cratchit-y secretary opposite Bill Murray's Scrooge, and the seamstress who designs Holly Hunter's winning costume for the "Miss Firecracker" contest, and the title role of Isiah Thomas' mother in "A Mother's Courage: The Mary Thomas Story." As a social worker, she advised Farrah Fawcett to take it easy in "Extremities." As a veteran's counselor, she supported John Ritter as a Vietnam vet affected by Agent Orange in "Unnatural Causes." As a straight-talking nurse, she challenged Mary McDonnell's paralyzed soap actress in "Passion Fish." As the judge in "Primal Fear," she presided over a key scene with Richard Gere defending the accused murderer of an archbishop.

Now, in "Down in the Delta," she gives one of her very best performances, as a self-destructive woman named Loretta with two children, one gifted, one autistic. She lives with her mother (Mary Alice) in a high-rise project, and spends her days watching TV, hanging out, and drinking. Her life is going nowhere. Her mother lays down the law: Either she moves back to the family farm in Mississippi, or she gets kicked out. She moves. On the Delta, her Uncle Earl (Al Freeman Jr.) helps her get her feet back on the ground. It's an uncommonly affecting family drama, also starring the late Esther Rolle as Earl's wife Annie, who has Alzheimer's. And there are convincing performances by Kulani Hassen as the autistic daughter, and Mpho Koaho as a bright son who hangs out on Rush Street, making money photographing tourists.

So, as I was saying, she hasn't made any exploitation films and she hasn't played stereotyped gangsters' girlfriends. In a time of limited choices for African-American actresses, she has not made a single choice simply to get the work.

"I would love to be a gangster's girlfriend," she tells me. "But I want `Bonnie and Clyde.' " This was in September at the Toronto Film Festival, where we had a long talk the day after "Down in the Delta" first screened.

"I want my characters to be as complex as human beings can be. But they're not complex as written in most pictures with predominantly black casts, so I can't be in them. I'd like a legitimate story about a real person who does rob banks. In that one, I'd love to be the bad girl. But in some stereotyped role about who they think black people are and how they think we talk and what they think our values are . . ."

You could hear the quiet unhappiness in her voice.

"I've heard for 25 years now that `we have to tell our stories.' But the stories they give the money to are the stories that say: Look! We're black! They're not seeing human beings. I'm interested in stories about people that you might actually know. But nobody wants to bankroll it unless you explain the whole time that you're black. Or talk about how the white man is at the middle of everything. You know what? You don't talk about the fact that you're black every day."

I think back over her roles and I see, yes, they have that in common: They are about individual people. None of them require the word "black" in front of the job description in order to explain the role.

"Real black people are hardly ever represented in American cinema and television," she said. "Nobody knows who we are, because it's been popular to keep us exotic. People think they're very liberal and hip, making movies about street types. But black people have never known many of the kinds of edgy black characters that are in the movies. Once you admit that a person is a human being, that their story is universal and you can identify with them, then they can't just be put in the `black' category. Gangsters, all those wacky blacks that populate the black films - that's why they're supported by Hollywood. It's so that you can think, `I'm not like that.' And whenever that hair stands up on your arm when a black guy walks too close and you didn't see him coming - that's where it comes from.

"You know what it is? It's technologically advanced Jim Crow. It's like the days when you kept people separate and you had children running away from black people because they were taught to be afraid. Once people know each other, they know it's not true. But the movies are teaching the world that black Americans are all hip-hop and drugs and crime and dangerous.

"I can't tell you what it's like, as a person who is traveling, and I'm on the Riviera, I'm standing in Siberia, anywhere, and have a person turn to me and say some little catchy b.s. jive they've heard from a movie. The only thing they know about me, as a person in my skin, is that they might be able to get some drugs from me, they might be able to screw me, they might be able to get me to help them steal something. They learned it at the movies. It is just amazing to me that black people are not angrier than they are."

She made a face. "So yes, I'd rather see pictures about people doing whatever they're doing, and I'm moved, and I'm reminded of myself."

That's the test of a role for you?

"It's just that, as an actor, I can't be in something I don't believe. I just don't have those kinda balls. So the only thing I can do is be honest. I don't mind going to see a piece of fluffy, whacky junk, because I want to see the people who are in it. But do it myself? To be on that set working 14-15-16 hours a day, saying that stuff - I couldn't do it. . . . It would bore me."

She paused, picked up a coffee cup, put it down again. "I'll tell you something else. Maybe if I was beautiful in that way that white people and African-American people crave for African-American women to look, maybe I'd be offered more of that. Then I'd have to decide, Oohhh, am I gonna show my butt?"

Don't you think you're beautiful?

"In the way that Americans, white and black Americans, think black women are beautiful? No. It's like, frankly, I don't get asked to do sexy scenes because I am not considered beautiful by American standards. I'd like to believe that I would still make the same choices, but - see, that's the thing. People think I'm such a righteous black woman because they've seen me doing that on film, and they haven't see me shaking my tits on film. They think I'm earnest and `strong' in that stereotypical way that people use `strong' when they talk about women. All I can think of when they say `strong woman' is somebody who can lift things. It deprives the person of their humanity and their complexity.

"So I'm strong. But I was never offered the things that Meryl and Sigourney, Michelle and all my contemporaries are offered. Because they're being offered roles as human beings in complex situations - life situations. The things I'm being offered are like O.P.P. or the Mary Thomas story. Now, of course, I'm gonna choose Mary Thomas. But then people start to think that I am only that. I could live and die and people would still have no idea who I am, but for however long my name lasts, that's what I'll be reported as. Strong righteous black woman.

Loretta, your character in "Down in the Delta," seems very human, very natural, not righteous . . .

"I was attracted to Loretta. I knew I could do her. It was actually her disorganized, failing self, at the beginning of the story, that I was attracted to - more than her success at the end. That person at the end is easy to like, but I'm interested in the person at the beginning who can't get it together.

"What word would you call her, at the beginning of the film? She's not successful at being a sturdy human being. She's somebody that's drunk and loud or angry, always wrong and fighting. I'm attracted to people like that, as long as they're still attractive as human beings. I'm drawn, because I see fire there. I'd rather hang out and have a cup of tea while she had a glass of whiskey, just to hear what she had to say, because I know there'd be currents around her.

"We want to say she's a terrible person. But there have always been people like her in my life. You didn't support them in hurting themselves, but you also didn't toss them away. People like Loretta have lives and friends like me. And they have families, and people who care about them."

I like that scene, I said, where she's in the crack house, but she won't take the strong stuff because that could be the beginning of the end. She has that much self-respect and survival instinct. She's thinking, I'm getting drunk every day, but I have enough sense to realize that I don't need any more problems than I have right now.

"Yeah. I've found a way to manage. I'm not trying to kill myself. There's a blues song: `I ain't drunk, I'm just drinking.' I did a lot of thinking about Loretta. I decided she dropped out of high school as a sophomore. The school system let her glide through. She's never been able to get a good job because she can't read. There's that scene when she applies at the supermarket.

"She's in an urban environment, Chicago, where you can fall through the cracks. If she had been down in the Delta with her family, she would have had people who own land, people who are watching your back for you. When people live close to the land, there is a place for you. If you can't read or add, there's something for you to do. There's nothing for you to do in cities, especially in blighted environments, where it gets multi-generational so fast. All the roots are on top. There's nobody older than anybody else.

"It's her family that saves her. In any family there will be teachers, there will be inspired holy people, there will be crooks. It is the foundation which allows a person to become who they would like to become. So she actually gets to have a shot. If you put a plant in the right soil, wood, water and sunlight, it may not grow into the most fabulous orchid you ever saw. But it will do what an orchid does."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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