Friday, March 31st, 2023

The Delta: a gay analog of Monster’s Ball

TheDeltaThe Delta

Written and Directed by Ira Sachs

Released September 9, 1996 at the Toronto International Film Festival
85 min.


Review by Stephen O. Murray

January 26, 2003.

The Delta, written and directed by Ira Sachs, is in many ways a young male precursor of Monster’s Ball—with less graphic sex, less nudity, and no representation of the state executing someone.

The two films have a remarkable number of similarities, including:

  • Both are set in the American South (Monster’s Ball in Louisiana passing as Georgia, The Delta in Memphis and Mississippi)
  • Both have black men writhing in the agonies of executions (the reasons for which are not spelled out within the movies)
  • Both begin confusingly, making viewers wonder (1) who are these people and (2) what are the relationships between those seen in fairly brief vignettes
  • Both have sex scenes early on (see 1 and 2 immediately above!) and have aimless white “heroes” going down on nonwhite partners (early in The Delta, late in Monster’s Ball), though this is more implied in The Delta in contrast to Halle Berry’s climax in Monster. (Neither has frontal nudity below the waist.)
  • Both have nonwhite leads who are very short of money and very frustrated with their lives in ways beyond lack of money
  • Both feature antagonistic father-son relationships involving the white male leads
  • The Delta also has a taunting (in Vietnamese) relationship between its nonwhite male lead and a male relative
  • Both include joltingly unexpected deaths (earlier in Monster than in Delta)
  • Both have characters who run on alcohol and tobacco (though Billy Bob runs on coffee and chocolate ice-cream and Halle Berry’s son runs on sugar)
  • Both have edgy performances by skinny nonwhite leads (Halle Berry’s recognized with an Oscar; Than Chang remains far from being a household name), some of whose lines are hard to hear (or in Chang’s case, with his mixture of Southern U.S. and Vietnamese accents, to understand)
  • Both films are dark: both in being under-lit and in containing a lot of despair (and quite a bit to despair about), though some regard Monster’s Ball as having a happy ending. (As much as I like chocolate ice-cream, I don’t think it can work the magic it seems to in Monster’s Ball.) The basic storyline of The Delta is believable, if very depressing, whereas I find the basic storyline of Monster’s Ball completely unbelievable, though very much in a Hollywood genre of two similarly afflicted people finding each other and coming together to provide solace to each other (not to mention sex).

As the perplexed white Southerner, Lincoln Bloom (not the most common of Southern white male names!), Shayne Gray is entirely credible in The Delta.

The major volte-face after a trauma in Monster’s Ball that Billy Bob Thornton has to sell is not credible to me. Admittedly, it is a greater challenge. Gray only has to play a youth who is vaguely dissatisfied with his lot and unsure about what he wants. He’s modest (laughing off compliments) and willing to go along when the stronger-willed John (Chang) picks him up late at night in a peepshow arcade after the white boy has irritated his bland, blonde girlfriend (Rachel Van Huss) and been expelled from her company (and her family’s garage).

John convinces Lincoln to leave the arcade with him, and Lincoln takes John to his father’s boat and then out into the Mississippi River, mooring the next morning in Mississippi (the state). Beer and fireworks lead to disaster, and something between revenge against Lincoln and revenge against black men such as the father who abandoned the biracial John in Vietnam (and in John’s view used a Vietnamese (his mother) for sex, setting a pattern of using John for sex and then casting him off).

The rhythm of both films seems off to me, in ways beyond planned jolts. The Delta has better scenery; Monster’s Ball is more adequately lit. Both bring to the screen life ways and life experiences that are uncommon in Hollywood films. I think Chang’s performance in The Delta is more searing than Berry’s in Monster’s Ball.

Both films require interpretive work from the audience. I can make sense of what I saw in both, but, as I’ve said, I can believe (while regretting) what happens in The Delta but cannot believe (though would like to) the growth and transformation of the characters in Monster’s Ball. Monster’s Ball ultimately offers escapist, romanticist hope (following tragic and unsettling events) whereas the ending of The Delta is totally bleak (for the last two characters shown; I guess some might find Lincoln’s retreat to the convenience of his girlfriend is upbeat).

I’m not sure that Monster’s Ball is a good movie, but I think that The Delta is a better and more searching one. And I’m sure many people do not want to be confronted with what is on-screen in either of them.

first published by CultureDose, 26 January 2003
©2003, 2017, Stephen O. Murray

About The Author

Stephen O. Murray grew up in rural southern Minnesota, earned a B.A. from James Madison College (within Michigan State University), an M.A. from the University of Arizona, a Ph.D. from the University of Toronto (both in sociology), and was a postdoctoral fellow at Berkeley (in anthropology). He is the author of American Gay, Homosexualities, etc. and lives in San Francisco.