George C. Wolfe (Angels in America) directs a frenetic opening sequence that intercuts a raucous party, backseat sex, a knife fight and the pain-bought joy of childbirth. The dirty dancin', the good lovin' -- all of it -- is both life-affirming and violent: The switchblades brandished by jealous lovers match the knife used to cut a newborn's umbilical cord.
Lackawanna was and is a run-down suburb of Buffalo, N.Y., and Santiago-Hudson actually lived this wackos-in-a-boarding-house existence. Orphaned by parents who couldn't or wouldn't take care of him, he was taken in by the mother hen of the entire community, "Nanny" Crosby (S. Epatha Merkerson).
Drawing on the icy, commanding stare that she's perfected in 12 years as the lieutenant on Law & amp; Order, Merkerson commands several scenes in Lackawanna, standing firm against whacked-out Vietnam vets, desperate mothers and abusive husbands. But she displays a broader range too -- the warmth of a mother, the picture of compassion, the heart of the party.
Among a stellar supporting cast, look especially for cameo portrayals of characters with deficiencies by Delroy Lindo, Louis Gossett Jr. and Terrence Dashon Howard. Their characters have, respectively, one arm, one leg and an inability to stick with just one woman.
On the commentary track, Wolfe offers interesting explanations about the opening snapshot montage, the medical circumstances of a deathbed scene -- even the symbolism of wallpaper.
Special features are sparse: audio commentary, a deleted scene, a three-minute making-of tape. But the soundtrack is practically a special feature in itself, with the standout moments including a couple of jump blues numbers by Mos Def and Robert Bradley singing the lonesome blues as counterpoint to the scene when Ruben's birth mother (the luminous Carmen Ejongo) relinquishes him to Nanny.
Wolfe says that his goal in Lackawanna Blues was to get viewers feeling, not judging. In scene after scene -- from a little boy gaping in abandonment to the silent tribute of a homecoming party -- he succeeds.