“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.