George C. Wolfe’s Lackawanna Blues begins in a sterile, dreary 1980s hospital room, where an agonizing Ruben Jr. (Hill Harper) does his damnedest to bring his graying Nanny (S. Epatha Merkerson) back from the edge of death. But soon enough viewers are catapulted back to 1950s Lackawanna, New York, a more vibrant and colorful time, where that frail woman, previously seen fighting for her life, is now in her glorious prime.
Thanks to constant, smooth camera movement and expert cross-cut editing, these opening scenes make the audience feel like they’re back in 1956 and sitting at Rachel “Nanny” Crosby’s kitchen counter on the most hopping night of the week—the Friday night fish fry. Trays of steaming cornbread and collards are hurried to hungry partygoers, whiskey on the rocks and ice-cold beer are slung, crisp dollar bills are thrown down on top of playing cards, and switchblades are snatched out because lovers can’t hold their liquor or their jealousy. Most importantly, the screen is filled with beautiful Black bodies grinding to rich and melodious rhythm and blues as Nanny glides through each room, checking on her guests and cracking jokes. It’s the epitome of Black joy, a sad rarity in cinema centered on African American life during the Jim Crow era.
While films like Mississippi Burning, Detroit, and even The Help focused on the terror white supremacy inflicts in Black folks’ lives, Lackawanna Blues broadened the narrative. Even in the face of staunch oppression and violence, Black people did more than just survive; they thrived and created an existence filled with love and light. The film complicates one’s ideas about segregation, providing a different view of the evils of the “separate but equal” ideology. Lackawanna’s world is one where Black entrepreneurs like Nanny—who runs a cab stand, a restaurant, and two rooming houses—could carve out ways to succeed outside of white folks’ rules, hypocrisy, and harrowing gaze. Sadly and ironically, by the film’s conclusion, integration becomes “the villain” of the movie, because for every door it opened for African Americans in the white world, it closed many of the Black-owned businesses, marking an end to this insular “cultural closeness” and leaving in its wake abandoned buildings, dusty rubble, and rundown liquor stores.
Based on Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s touching autobiographical one-man play of the same name, Lackawanna Blues primarily shows us this vivacious world through a younger Ruben’s eyes. His story and this film are a love letter to Nanny, the woman who not only delivered him into this world when his mother went into labor, but raised Ruben when his parents (played by Jimmy Smits and Carmen Ejogo) couldn’t. Revisiting this film and this poignant Black female character doesn’t just feel necessary as this month marks the film’s 15th anniversary, but because it elevates the voices of everyday Black women like Nanny who are often ignored and don’t fit into the current definition of #BlackExcellence folks yearn to see on screen. Nor does her story play into respectability politics, the idea that assimilation or proximity to whiteness is the only worthy way to success and protection.
Nanny isn’t a high-society cotillion debutante, or a member of the Talented Tenth graduating from a prestigious HBCU like Spelman College. She’s “a little ol’ gal from a tobacco farm in Virginia” who calls out “who knock?” when someone is at her back door. But just because she only has a third-grade education, ain’t she still a hero like the late Katherine Johnson, the mathematician whose life story inspired Hidden Figures? Nanny may not be a math whiz helping put white men on the moon, but she does help take Black folks from the South and settle them up north to live out their Great Migration dreams.
While she probably wouldn’t rock a Black Panther afro, she’s revolutionary in her own way, embodying what author Mikki Kendall calls “hood feminism,” the notion that feminism must address race, class, and gender and fight for the basic needs of everyone in the community. For Nanny, her singular success doesn’t mean much if others can’t also benefit from it. So she operates like the U.S. government “if it actually worked,” by providing safe and stable housing, food, and employment for an array of misfits and former criminals—brilliantly brought to life in the film by Delroy Lindo, Macy Gray, Louis Gossett Jr., Jeffrey Wright, Rosie Perez, and Adina Porter—who find themselves at her boarding house. While Junior calls them “fools,” Nanny treats them with dignity and respect.
It’s impossible to sing the praises of Lackawanna Blues without recognizing the brilliance of its star, S. Epatha Merkerson, who dazzles in every frame she occupies and is truly the heart and soul of the film. Best known for playing Lt. Anita Van Buren on the long-running Law & Order, Merkerson serves up a master class on acting that is moving, affirming, and may even compel viewers to try to be better people. You believe every look, every inflection in her voice, and every choice she makes on screen. No other actress could have played Nanny but her. “Let’s talk about actresses, period, trying to find a gig beyond 50—add to that being Black and menopausal,” she told the New York Times in 2005. “I’m tickled and having a blast.”
That bliss radiates on screen, as does her understanding that underestimated women like Nanny have nonetheless carried the weight of the Black community on their shoulders and are often reduced to lives of selfless servitude. But the film understands there is more to these women than that, as it reveals more of Nanny’s desires, her past, and painful family history, which includes the tragic death of her daughter, Lillian. In an endearing scene, Junior scratches and oils Nanny’s scalp, and asks her if she ever wanted children. Nanny gently pulls back, but gives a look that reads as “Boy, I had a life before you”; still, she allows herself to convey that pain, admitting that it took her “a long while to get back on speaking terms with God.”
This is also seen when Nanny, who knows “the rules” of her unconventional marriage, confronts her philandering husband, Bill (Terrence Howard), an “old yellow Geechie boy 17 years her junior,” who’s disrespected her for the last time. After not showing up for the annual Forties Dance at Maxine’s Bar and Grill because Bill let his frail male ego get in the way, Nanny doesn’t threaten to “blow the back of his head off” like she does earlier in the film. This time, her weapon of choice is honesty and tears, which Merkerson delivers with sheer perfection. “You can’t hurt me no more. I’m numb,” she says as her eyes well up. “I look at you and don’t even see you. I touch you and don’t even feel you. But I smell you and I know I’m alive. And that stench ain’t just some other woman’s cheap perfume. It’s your soul, Bill. Your rotten soul.”
Merkerson’s magic led her to win an Emmy, Golden Globe, and SAG Award for her first on-screen lead role in her then-nearly 20-year career. Not just anyone can pull off a showdown with such conviction as the scene between Merkerson and Henry Simmons, the latter of whom plays the vain and vicious boxer Jesse Ford. Tired of being his punching bag, Jesse’s white wife, Laura (Julie Benz), seeks solace at Nanny’s. The next day when Jesse bursts into her kitchen “to collect” his family, enraged that Nanny has gotten in between “me and mine,” Nanny doesn’t flinch. She instead reads him for filth and leaves the audience squealing in delight. After describing Laura’s harrowing state and her own steadfast response, Nanny leans over the counter, and looking Jesse dead in the eye, says, “So if you want to give me a dose of what you give her… bring it on. ’Cause if you ever touch that child again. Babyeeeeee… we gonna dance.”
Watching Lackawanna Blues hits differently now that I’m a 41-year-old woman, as opposed to the naïve 26-year-old I was when it first debuted. I’m more aware of the exhaustion and sacrifice so many sistas like Nanny have endured. And like Junior, there’s an extra sense of worry that she “would give so much of herself to other people, she wouldn’t have anything left for herself,” because I’ve seen it firsthand. But Merkerson’s performance eases that anxiety, deftly straddling that line and breathing complexity into Nanny’s life. It’s why the film still resonates today, making me appreciate the ending even more now.
In those final scenes, Nanny comes home from the hospital to a surprise party with all her favorite fixings and favorite people. Of course, as Nanny always does, she worries more about others than herself, asking Junior to deliver a plate of food to a sick church member and making sure she attends another friend’s funeral the next day. But in those closing moments, she and Merkerson have to succumb to being celebrated. Nanny is forced to stand on a chair in the middle of the room, as everyone pins dollar bills on her lilac flowered dress, thanking her for all the ways she’s changed their lives for the better.
You don’t expect that 15 seconds to gut you, but they do, especially when you take into account how often Black women’s sacrifices, generosity, and labor so often go unnoticed and unrewarded. But in Lackawanna Blues, Nanny gets her flowers and gets them while she’s alive. The real Nanny died in 1989 at the age of 83, but despite the beautiful and meaningful film her life story inspired, stories like Nanny’s are still forgotten or remain untold. Many Black actresses like Merkerson, who have always had the talent and the discipline, still rarely get the chance to show the world their greatness, because opportunities like this one are few and far in between. Lackawanna Blues makes the case for recognizing these women and performers before it’s too late and we miss out on their brilliance.