`Heaven on earth' during hard days of segregation

HBO show captures breathless beat of a time gone by

Television

February 06, 2005|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

It's the Friday night fish fry, and Nanny's boarding house is rocking.

Women in brightly colored satin dresses and death-defying stiletto heels shake and grind to the hard-driving boogie-woogie beat. Men in sleek suits and pointy-toed shoes match their partners move for move until it seems as if the walls of the house itself are throbbing in time to the music.

The air is electric with sex, and you can almost smell the cologne, sweat and fish frying in crackling grease as the camera follows a smiling, handkerchief-waving, grand-looking middle-aged woman who is making her way across the dance floor and working the room like a politician.

"Nineteen fifty-six," a narrator says in voiceover. "Lackawanna, New York, like all Great Lakes cities, was jumping, and at the center of it all was Rachel Crosby. Nanny, that's what we all called her - or just plain mama. ... Segregation forced these folks to make their own heaven on earth, and Nanny's fish fry was the place to be. For me, this Friday night was special. It was the night my journey with Nanny began."

So begins HBO's Lackawanna Blues, a dazzling film adaptation by writer Ruben Santiago-Hudson and George C. Wolfe, director of Hudson's acclaimed autobiographical, off-Broadway play. The opening sequence leaves one almost breathless with the simultaneous climax of three separate story lines: a bloody assault on the dance floor, a sexual encounter in the back seat of a car, and the squalling birth of the narrator, Ruben Jr., with Nanny as midwife. And every second of the heart-pounding montage is driven by that boogie-woogie jukebox beat.

One wonders where the film can possibly go from there. But it gets even better.

From Tuskegee Airmen (1996) and Miss Evers' Boys (1997) to Something the Lord Made (2004), no network or cable channel has done as impressive a job of making movies about African-American history and life as HBO. That tradition continues this week with Lackawanna Blues, which makes its premiere Saturday.

(An invitation-only sneak preview is scheduled for Tuesday night at Baltimore's Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture.)

Along with such PBS documentaries as Chisholm '72: Unbought & Unbossed, the story of the first African-American woman to run for president of the United States (tomorrow night at 10 on MPT), Lackawanna kicks off a Black History Month of powerful programming.

At its core, Lackawanna is a love song - a 12-bar blues ballad sung sweet and melancholy by Ruben Jr., first as a 12-year-old (Marcus Carl Franklin), and then as a young adult (Hill Harper). The object of Ruben's affection is Nanny (S. Epatha Merkerson), who took him in and raised him as her son when it became clear that his biological mother, Alean (Carmen Ejogo), didn't have enough room in her life for him and her multiple addictions.

Merkerson, best known as Lt. Anita Van Buren on NBC's Law & Order, infuses Nanny with such energy and spirit that she dominates whenever she's on screen. That is no small accomplishment, given the fascinating characters that populate her rooming house - and the all-star cast that plays them.

Jeffrey Wright, who won a Tony for his performance in Angels in America, is an offbeat delight as Small Paul, an ex-con who, while in prison, taught himself to speak the way that he thinks white folks speak. The idiosyncratic lessons in black history that he offers Ruben Jr. are one of the great pleasures of the film.

Jimmy Smits does some of his finest work in years as Ruben Sr., the father of the film's narrator. Who knew Smits had such range? Mos Def, last seen in Something the Lord Made, is smooth as silk as a singer and bandleader at the center of this rich and swirling African-American subculture in segregated upstate New York.

Louis Gossett Jr., Macy Gray, Delroy Lindo and Terrence Dashon Howard all distinguish themselves with the intensity and power of their performances.

While each of the eccentric characters is carefully delineated in script and performance, their real glory is the tapestry of African-American life before integration that they come to represent when taken together. As Ruben Jr. says, "Segregation forced these people to make their own heaven on earth," and one of the central insights of the film is how divinely talented and deeply nurturing communities of color in places like Lackawanna could be.

Ultimately, the film is transformed from a love song for Nanny to an elegy for that part of African-American life that was lost when the walls of segregation started to come down in 1960s America. How lucky we are as a society to have artists like Santiago-Hudson and Wolfe who remember and can so eloquently bring those memories back to life onscreen.

On TV

What: Lackawanna Blues

When: 8 p.m. Saturday

Where: HBO

In brief: The richness of African-American life in a segregated upstate New York community of the 1950s lovingly remembered.

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