Greetings again from the darkness. This “inspired by true events” film opens with a history lesson: In 1954, in the landmark Brown v Board of Education case, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled racial segregation of public schools was unconstitutional. This was followed in 1965 with SCOTUS ruling there should be no more delays in desegregation, and another ruling by the high court in 1971 stating that busing students was appropriate in facilitating desegregation. But it took the NAACP bringing suit against Boston Public Schools before a specific court ruling in 1973 forced the city to comply by the following year. The film from writer-director Daniel Adams (THE LIGHTKEEPERS, 2009) and co-writer George Powell picks up in 1974.
Justin Chatwin (“Shameless”) stars as Boston Police Officer Bill Coughlin, a born and raised “Southie”, whose daughter Katie (Katie Douglas) is finishing up one school year and looking forward to her upcoming senior year of high school. Her world is rocked when her best friend receives a letter stating that she has been reassigned to another school as part of the desegregation. Reacting as a teenager would, Katie claims it’s all unfair and she should get a normal senior year without having to share her school with black students. What we soon learn is that those black students feel the same way. Wendy Robbins (an excellent Lovie Simone) lives with her EMT dad (Terrence Howard), and her faith and courage and maturity aren’t quite enough to overcome the emotions, but she’s strong enough to follow in the steps of MLK rather than the Black Panthers.
We see that neither side wanted it handled this way. “Why do they hate us?” It’s the question asked a couple of times, and goes to the heart of the cultural and racial divide in Boston at the time. Officer Coughlin is at the center of much of what happens. He’s struggling with the bubbling emotions in his city, his concern for his daughter, his reassignment to protect the black kids getting bused to south Boston, and facing threats from Johnny Bunkley (Jeremy Piven), a local thug recently released from prison. Bunkley is protected by McLaughlin, the neighborhood power broker played by Malcolm McDowell. On top of all that, Coughlin considers himself fair, but wonders if he’s a racist … and wonders how exactly to define the word (a dilemma that still exists 50 years later).
The film does capture what a tumultuous time it was to be a parent, a kid, or a cop. Everyone was uneasy and looking for someone to blame and a way to maintain the status quo. Many characters are involved here, but most of the focus is on Coughlin and Katie. His challenges stem from work, home, and the neighborhood, while hers are that of a teenager feeling wronged and smothered. Some of the sub-plots work, while others are misfires. It’s vital to keep in mind that the story is set in 1974 … the first year of busing for desegregation in Boston public schools.
As powerful as the issues covered are, the film likely would have benefited from better casting, and a simplified and focused script. Mr. Piven is a fine actor, but miscast here as a street thug. Mr. Chatwin lacks the physical presence of a cop who commands respect, though his sensitive nature is a plus given his inner turmoil. Malcolm McDowell is always a treat to watch, but casting a Brit as a native Southie only exacerbated the inconsistencies many had with the accent. The film is one to watch for the history lesson, though not so much for cinematic expertise.
Opens on June 10, 2022