This review was updated on Feb. 2, 2005.
Anchored by a penetrating performance from S. Epatha Merkerson as a surrogate mother-enforcer-counselor at a boarding house, HBO’s adaptation of Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s one-man stage show beams with color and the colorful. “Lackawana Blues” is foremost a visual treat — costumes and settings full of deep engaging colors — before it gets down to the story of how a deserted child, Ruben Jr. (Marcus Carl Franklin), grows up under the watchful eye of “Nanny” Cross (Merkerson).
Santiago-Hudson’s story succeeds on the strength of its singularity, with enough oddball characters to fill a Kaufman-Hart production, were they writing for black audiences. Sentimentality ultimately catches up with the story, but Santiago-Hudson keeps easy emotions at bay for most of the re-telling of his youth. Featured at Sundance, pic starts airing on HBO Feb. 12.
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“Lackawanna” revels in the mood of the late 1940s and 1950s — the style of dress, the jump blues, the sense of self-sustenance in a segregated society. As the ’60s creep in, “Lackawanna” blocks the intrusion of social change, maintaining a fairy tale ambience for Ruben Jr. to grow up in. Only upon his return to the city as an adult, when buildings are either boarded up or sit as rubble and his own home is only a battered shell, does reality fully set in.
At 32 Wasson St., Nanny provides the hottest Friday night fish fry for miles around and “Lackawanna” opens — after the usual flashback sequence — in the heat of weekend fun.
Nanny’s rooming house is a haven for people in need of a second chance — ex-cons, drug addicts, pimps, gamblers and what used to be called wayward women. Her life is about taking “fragments of people and making them whole”; her success rate, judging by this 95-minute glimpse, is near perfect.
Ruben Jr. is born at 32 Wasson, and, although they try to make a home for him, his parents break up after a couple of years. Mom moves back to 32 Wasson and works two jobs. Unbeknownst to Nanny, young Ruben is being left alone in the room.
Nanny argues she can do a better job of raising the boy than his mother can, and, after mom is busted for shoplifting and starts hanging with a wild crowd, Nanny’s argument gains steam. Daddy Ruben (Jimmy Smits) tries to sustain a relationship with his son, but eventually, he, too, acquiesces to the idea of Ruben being raised by Nanny.
Intriguing characters surround Ruben Jr. including a one-armed murderer (Delroy Lindo), a conspiracy theorist/black historian (the superbly calm Jeffrey Wright), a transvestite, a lot of older men running their mouths, and Bill (Terrence Dashon Howard), Nanny’s husband, who’s 17 years younger than she is and still acts like he’s single.
Ruben Jr. exposes their souls.
George C. Wolfe takes the entourage and Santiago-Hudson’s script and makes it a tale of conviction — of building human substance from the inside out. Things turn a bit preachy when making distinctions between right and wrong late in the pic, but the film’sredemption comes in its matter-of-fact approach to life that Wolfe ensures will tug on the heart.
Editor Brian A. Kates supplies some flashy cuts to emphasize the thin line between love and hate, not to mention the speed with which some of these characters lived life.
Franklin is the surprising marvel in “Lackawanna.” His Ruben Jr. absorbs life around him much as Santiago-Hudson must have when he was a boy, considering how vibrantly the author recounts his youth. As much as he has to age in a hurry, Ruben Jr. remains a boy aging at a child’s pace; he is never wise beyond his years nor is he expected to be.
Howard has a good time with Bill, playing him feisty and scurrilous, but his sense of being a protector and of duty always win out. Macy Gray plays up the oddball angle in house regular Pauline, the one character that could be excised with no effect on the film. Powerhouse cast fills smaller roles ably.
Source music is tremendous and quite spry, forcing Meshell Ndegeocello to create moody cues steeped in rural blues. Though one character plays the acoustic blues that black America shunned in the 1950s, the anachronism could have a purpose: The blind bluesman could signify these people’s past and not their present.