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Tuscaloosa kicks off with an urgent, arresting image laying out what’s at stake, archive footage of George Wallace making his infamous “segregation today, segregation tomorrow and segregation for ever!” pitch on the campaign stump in 1963, before even more footage shows Wallace in the full glare of the TV cameras blocking the entrance to the University of Alabama to two black students.

A flash even further back in time, to 1953, and a car containing a white woman and a black woman, caught in freeze frame, the two having run away together. They ended up, we learn, so badly disfigured in the burnt-out hull of the car that their bodies were unrecognisable.

And cut forward, to the Summer of 72 (Tuscaloosa’s alternate title), where the story settles into its groove, introduces Billy (Devon Bostick), dude-ish, slackerish son of the chief doctor (Tate Donovan) at a mental asylum, where a summer of ostentatious smoking and mowing the lawns is increasingly frustrating the stiff, casually racist, golf-playing dad, who’s wondering why he spent all that money on Billy’s college education.

To irritate his father even more, probably, Billy starts making eyes at one of the patients, Virginia, a mouthy and pretty chatterbox, against the explicit warnings from his dad not to mix with the crazies.

Between times, Billy also hangs with Nigel (Marchánt Davis), a black kid he grew up with, and likes to think of as his “brother” (as well as his weed supplier and his gateway to cool black existence). Nigel is less sure of this brothers angle, especially since he started listening to his radicalised friends, one of whom (played by YG) doesn’t just quote Black Panther Huey Newton but also dresses like him.

Based on Glasgow Phillips’s novel, this is a film about two women of different skin colours who run away to be together in the 1950s Deep South. It’s also a film about their two sons, who turn out to be Billy and Nigel. And a film about Billy and Virginia’s increasingly close relationship. Tuscaloosa has plenty of transgressive relationships to fit in to its relatively modest running time and the way it does that is by relegating the women to a walk-on (a drive-on, really) at the top and tail of the action, then relegating the Billy and Nigel relationship to a series of stiff-legged encounters in which Billy pitches his feelings to Nigel (under the skin, we’re brothers) and Nigel responds with a cold, hard negative. Billy can’t, or won’t, see that he and Nigel live in different worlds where different rules apply.

Billy, NIgel and Virginia with hands in the air
Stick em up: Billy, Nigel and Virginia

We’re left with Billy and Virginia and a love story with a familiar One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest dimension – Virginia’s “madness”, it turns out, is to have pointed out the craziness of the society she lives in. Feisty.

Luckily, Devon Bostick (new to me) is a charming presence, and Natalia Dyer (of Stranger Things) lights up the screen every time she’s on it. They make for a couple whose love deserves to win through, but though they come across as plausible, the people they’re surrounded with are either cardboard racists (Billy’s dad and good ol’ boy pals, the local police), or cardboard black people (Nigel and friends). This would not matter so much if Tuscaloosa were just a love story, and if George Wallace and Black Power hadn’t been name-checked so obviously in the film’s setup, but they were. What’s more, it’s with Nigel and his increasingly activist friends, and the local cops’ violent reaction to it, where the drama is actually playing out, almost off in the wings.

Philip Harder’s first feature after a career making video shorts for the likes of Prince, Foo Fighters and Incubus demonstrates he knows his way around a camera. He dredges the world of Billy and Virginia in the sort of Coca-Cola colours that once taught the world to sing and delivers scenes that are brisk and punchy. It’s Harder as the adapter of the original novel who’s slipped up here. What we’re promised is not what’s delivered and Tuscaloosa feels like a blatant case of mis-selling.

Tuscaloosa – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

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