Alfre Woodard is the kind of actor who ennobles a film just by her presence, who projects more intent with a probing gaze or quick upturning of chin than most can in a page of dialogue and whose distinctive gifts (an earthy intelligence; luminous, intuitive eyes; and a bearing befitting Ghanian royalty) help endow her characters with soul and depth before she utters a word.
In her career spanning some 25 years and more than 40 films, Woodard's high standard of art and craft eclipses many of the projects to which she has lent her name. What else is new? While substantive roles for white actresses "of a certain age" are rare enough, the paucity of quality material for grown-up African-American women today is an embarrassment. All the more reason to celebrate the surviving--and thriving--of Woodard, who still manages to connect with the industry's all-too-rare gems (Passion Fish, Grand Canyon, The Piano Lesson, Cross Creek and others) and imbue them with her own shining light.
The Black Academy of Arts and Letters partners with Blockbuster Inc. to pay homage to Woodard's multifaceted career in the 24-Hour Star Power Film Feast, featuring the back-to-back screening of three movies followed by an informal chat between Woodard, author George Alexander (Why We Make Movies: Black Filmmakers Talk About the Magic of Cinema) and the audience. The daylong festival begins with the made-for-Showtime comedy Statistically Speaking, which was produced, written and directed by African-American filmmaker and Woodard friend Nandi Bowe. With a running time of 26 minutes, the 1995 short feature deals with the premise of love, marriage and the unnerving ticking of a biological clock, asking the popular question, "Is it true that a woman over 40 is more likely to be hijacked than newly married?"
After the lighthearted opener, the fare darkens. In Miss Evers' Boys, Woodard plays Eunice Evers, a nurse in 1930s Alabama whose good intentions are "twisted up in her mind" when she cooperates with the U.S. government's plan to deceive black men of Macon County into believing they are being treated for their syphilis ailments instead of merely "studied." Woodard shines in this shadowy play of morality, conscience and deception; her Eunice is by turns idealistic and resigned, hopeful and despairing as the reality of the "Tuskegee Experiment" dons on her and casts a pall over a life committed to helping others.
But it is Down in the Delta (produced by Wesley Snipes and directed by Maya Angelou) that tests Woodard's considerable range of artistic motion. Though as an African-American actress she has been forced to play her share of substance addicts (most recently in Passion Fish and Holiday Heart), Down in the Delta promises a story of family legacy, triumph of spirit and redemption, and it delivers. As Loretta, Chicago mother of a young son, Woodard's body quakes with the desperation of the addicted, and failure seems written all over her in bold font. But a trip to the Delta (and a journey through her family's history and to a reckoning with her own destiny) transforms Loretta profoundly and irreversibly. In ways subtle and demonstrative, Woodard's portrayal suggests an adult coming-of-age story, where a woman gathers strength to reclaim her life through the power of an ancestral gift. And thanks to Blockbuster and The Black Academy of Arts and Letters, Woodard will get to share her own gift with Dallas.