“Lackawanna Blues” is a joyous, jumbled mess of nostalgia overflowing with fascinating memories and good music. While sometimes infuriating in its aimless memories, it paints an affectionate picture of the black community of Lackawanna, New York in the early 1960s, before desegregation took full effect and when tight-knit communities created an environment in which people relied on one another.
Actor/writer Ruben Santiago-Hudson adapted his autobiographical one-man show to the screen, but maintained its loose narrative structure of life lessons and memories. After being told that Nanny is in the hospital, the adult Ruben heads back to see the sick old woman and remembers his childhood. Nanny (S. Epatha Merkerson) is basically Ruben’s adopted mother, who cared for him after his mother, despite good desires, was unable to concentrate on raising him. Nanny is one of those people who spends her life helping others, and the boarding house young Ruben grows up in is filled former convicts, shell-shocked veterans and other people who need assistance out in the normal world. The film is really a love letter to Nanny, who held the Lackawanna community together with firm love and a knowledge of what it takes to make it in life.
Acclaimed theatrical director George C. Wolfe, who worked on two other made-for-TV adaptations of plays over ten years ago, gets great performances from his large ensemble, although occasionally feels like he’s trying a bit too hard to make the work cinematic. Some of his efforts are enjoyable, though, like when he cuts between an unsteady lover’s straight razor assault on her boyfriend’s dance partner, some quick car sex between Nanny’s boyfriend and a passing lady, and Ruben’s birth to capture the chaos of Nanny’s Friday Night Fish Fry parties. Wolfe succeeds in capturing the memories of a unique and memorable childhood, while maintaining Santiago Hudson’s love letter to the woman who raised him—albeit sometimes with an overly excited voice-over chiming in on the story.
The HBO Films production probably won’t see theatrical release before airing next month—although it might received affectionate word of mouth—but is another strong piece of original programming from the station that has supported many independent narrative and documentary filmmakers.