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By Jeremy Mathews | January 20, 2005

“Lackawanna Blues” is a cliche-choked travesty about the relationship between a tough-but-tender boarding house owner who finds herself raising the young son of former tenants during the late 1960s. The film would like to be both a coming-of-age drama, a celebration of African-American life before the changes brought by the civil rights movement, and a loving examination of how a community bands together in time of need. However, the film fails completely to meet any of these lofty goals.

Since “Lackwananna Blues” takes place in a boarding house, it only follows the laws of bad writing that every tenant therein must be a loquacious eccentric with some weird personality trait or endless story to tell. So within the rooms and hallways of this establishment we find a blind blues singer, a one-legged psychiatric patient, a one-armed wood chopper, a squeaky-voiced bimbo who chases her two-timing man with a razor blade, a lesbian who smokes pot and wears men’s suits, a creepy hermit recently released from prison for a double murder, a shell-shocked Vietnam veteran, a maladjusted World War II veteran, and several malaprop-slinging buffoons who seem to be doing their own “Amos ‘n Andy” show. The only white folks who show up are a pair of obnoxious social workers who openly doubt this is the best environment to raise a child and the battered blonde wife of a nasty but very well dressed black dude.

The child at the heart of the story, ironically, is absent from long stretches. So are his parents, who don’t seem the slightest bit perturbed that their landlady is the de facto custodian of their offspring. But at least their youngster is in the good care of Rachel “Nanny” Crosby, the ultimate African-American matriarch of the school of mediocre black drama. This one-time maid doesn’t allow men to push her around, and she is always available when one of the women in her neighborhood needs a place to hide from an abusive husband. Nanny’s day is never lacking activity: either she’s cooking up neckbones and cornbread or she’s hosting Friday night fish fries or she’s threatening to shoot the head off her philandering husband. And, of course, she has her own deep tragic secret which she casually allows to spill out close to the end of the movie. All she’s missing is a light-skinned daughter passing for white and a dog named Sounder.

One of most disconcerting elements with “Lackawanna Blues” is its problem with environment. The bulk of the film takes place in the late 1960s, but aside from a few pop songs on the soundtrack and a passing reference to the Black Power movement there is no clue that this film is set in a period after the landmark civil rights legislation was passed. Confusing matters more is an extended nightclub sequence for a 1940s retro celebration – what is this doing in a movie about the 1960s?

Even worse, the film’s heavy sense of dealing with white racism would suggest its foundation is in the Deep South. Actually, “Lackawanna Blues” takes place in upstate New York. The total lack of interaction with whites makes no sense given this non-Dixie location and its cultural environment. And speaking of racism, the movie trots out every negative black stereotype imaginable – including craps shooting, fried chicken munching, switchblade slashing and egregious grammar. The men are irresponsible, unfaithful and cruel, and the women are either shrill or lazy.

The film is blessed with an all-star cast – S. Epatha Merkerson, Mos Def, Louis Gossett Jr., Ernie Hudson, Macy Gray, Delroy Lindo, Jeffrey Wright, Rosie Perez, Jimmy Smits and Liev Schreiber. But these talented people are at the mercy of a ridiculous script by Ruben Santiago-Hudson (based, oddly, on his one-man show where he played all of the roles) and the inept direction by George C. Wolfe, the Tony Award-winning Broadway director who helms his first movie with this project. Everyone’s efforts, sadly, were wasted.

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  1. Sarah Bali says:

    This is racist

  2. Larry Riche says:

    Wow , what an idiot you are Mr. Hall.

  3. Merriel says:

    This movie was WONDERFUL! I find this review to be utterly useless. The statement alone that racism only existed below the Mason-Dixon Line is preposterous…in my opinion, there was no need to read any further! Furthermore, this story is based upon the life of Ruben Santiago-Hudson. This person is clueless and not very deep at all.

  4. Shane says:

    What an awesome film! I enjoyed it immensely. As to the review above by Phil Hall, WHAT THE?
    One of the few films where a black woman is the lead character and it gets slammed because it’s cliche? I would also argue that the formula that most american films pander too has refreshingly strayed a little on this project. This was not a film about mainstream society in ny, this is a film about an alternative community, who are exactly that, not by choice, but by chance and circumstance, birds of a feather flock together, so, consequently, the film is very believable.
    I have known people like nanny, and they do attract strays, they ARE the glue, and if you have not yet met anyone with a big heart in the lower socioeconomic sector of communities? you need to get out more, (Phil). I will watch this film again, yes, it was that good : )

  5. Nellie Peek says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed this movie and would prefer it to Gone With The Wind any day.

    Luckily we know that we do not have to think the reviewer’s thoughts.

    And this is the first movie that the reviewer has come across that is inconsistent as to time and place of events. Really?

    We also know that those southerly tidbits you speak about did not and do not all happen in the south. We also know that upstate New York is not New York City. By we, I mean you also.

    Perhaps the reviewer should not review movies, books, plays etc. that the reviewer already has preconceived views about

  6. Nellie Peek says:

    I thorouhly enjoyed this movie.

  7. Debra Scott says:

    I enjoyed Lackawanna Blues immensely. As far as the review is concerned-I found it interesting, in that the reviewer didn’t really know much about the era in which the film takes place, yet makes that era the focal point of his review.
    I was “there”; in fact I grew up pretty much in the neighborhood where the story takes place. Every character wasn’t a civil rights activist, but who cares? The point of the film wasn’t the civil rights movement. The point, in my opinion, was how much heart ordinary people can have. I’ve known women who somewhat resemble Nanny’s character, and I feel as though she is anything but a walking cliche, which the reviewer has labelled her. And yes, Nanny’s tenants were all interesting and somewhat eccentric. Would the reviewer prefer to have dull characters be the heart of the film?
    It seems to me that the reviewer has a checklist of comments, adjectives and (in his mind) witticisms, and follows some kind of formula. In my opinion the only boring aspect of “Lackawanna Blues” is the review which prompted me to review the reviewer.

  8. Nick Avvento says:

    I watched this flick and wanted to write a review to tell people that I found a gem of a movie. I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed Lackawana Blues. I was also surprised when I read Phill Hall’s review and thought to myself how amazing it is that two people can see the same thing, yet not see the same thing. Mr. Hall does make valid points, but none the less I enjoyed the heck out of it regardless of the inconsistencies/inaccuracies that were raised. I thought the acting, plot, cinematography, roles, characters, etc., all complemented each other and it just flat out worked. All my emotions were felt by the time this movie ended, and it left me wishing it was longer. I was totally immersed in this movie and felt like I was in Lackawana right along with them. If you’re looking to do research on the civil rights era, then go to the library or rent a documentary. However, if you want to be entertained, watch this movie.

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