Love makes the world go round, but it can also send drama spiraling right down the drain. The recollection of someone loved too well and too uncritically can bury a filmed memoir in Hallmark emotion. Writer-actor Ruben Santiago-Hudson courts this danger in the autobiographical Lackawanna Blues (HBO, Feb. 12, 8 p.m. E.T.) and escapes--barely.
Adapted and expanded from Santiago-Hudson's 2001 one-man stage show, Blues recalls his childhood in an upstate New York boardinghouse in the 1950s and '60s. His surrogate mother, Rachel (Nanny) Crosby (S. Epatha Merkerson), gives an ersatz family of wayward, mostly African-American drifters shelter, hot meals and toughlove. The youngest is little Ruben (an astute Marcus Carl Franklin), whom Nanny delivers in an upstairs room, then takes in when neither of his young parents proves mature enough to raise him.
"That wouldn't be the last time Nanny came to my rescue," says Ruben (played, as an adult, by Hill Harper). She saves him here too--from the narration's sentimental bent--through Merkerson's strong, smart and earthy performance. Nanny is essentially a professional crisis manager, defusing fights, shooing off troublemakers and healing broken souls with sugar and steel. She's part social worker, part cop and all heart.
Theater producer-director George C. Wolfe, directing his first film, took Blues to the stage, and here he adds a vast cast and a kinetic style. He has gathered a stellar ensemble, including Santiago-Hudson as well as Delroy Lindo, Louis Gossett Jr. and Jeffrey Wright, as the various misfits who pass on their stories to Ruben.
Blues isn't a narrative so much as a series of vignettes and Emmy-clip speeches--a jam session of 12-bar vamps. But each player makes his or her bit sing in a raucous, syncopated valentine to an oddball community, to black culture and to mother love itself. --By James Poniewozik