Irish Catholic police officer Bill Coughlin believes in the right thing enough to attempt to do it, when in 1974, he is assigned to protect Black children being bused to a high school in South Boston. We know of his public service bent because of what happens when he apprehends a shoplifter outside a Black-owned food market early in the well-meaning, if wrong-headed feature “The Walk,” starring Justin Chatwin as Coughlin. He cuts the guy a break, even though the mart’s owner isn’t nearly as sympathetic. The exchange between cop and thief isn’t all Kum Ba Yah, but it is intended to signal Coughlin’s decency. When it comes to walking the walk, Bill Coughlin may prove to be the real deal. As for “The Walk,” the film’s insights about racism come as familiar baby steps.
In 1974, the District Court of Massachusetts ordered Boston to integrate its public school system, using busing. The order was met with white community pushback, fury and violence. Much of this history was beautifully laid out in the 1985 book “Common Ground.” Anthony J. Lukas’s Pulitzer Prize-winning account of race relations in Boston during those years featured three families: one Black, one Irish American, one Yankee. Directed by Boston native son Daniel Adams (and co-written with George Powell), “The Walk” trains its focus on two families, each with a daughter about to begin senior year at the same high school: Coughlin, wife Pat (Anastasiya Mitrunen) and their willful child Kate (Katie Douglas); widower Lamont Robbins (Terrence Howard) and daughter Wendy (Lovie Simone). The first day of the school year looms large and menacing for each family. Think Little Rock in 1957 or New Orleans in 1960.
Furious that her senior year is being highjacked by desegregation, Kate Coughlin suffers from the peculiar myopia of many teens (it’s all about her), but she also embraces an overt racism her parents don’t share. Indeed, mother Pat’s halting Russian accent underlines the ways in which Bill is already an outlier in the tight-knit, Irish community.
Kate dumps her upstanding junior-year suitor and starts sneaking around to canoodle with neighborhood bad boy Sean (Jason Alan Smith), a scion of South Boston brutalism. She begins using racial epithets and one night she joins in throwing a rock at a car driven by a Black man. In that pelted car are Lamont and a terrified Wendy.
The soon-to-be-senior’s head is so screwed on straight that she genially putdowns the local pimp. That ease doesn’t extend to the fact she, her pining best friend Terrance (Coletrane Williams) and their friends will be bused from her predominantly Black neighborhood to an all-white high school. Wendy may be the opposite of Kate, but she too is troubled by of the court mandate.
Instead of richly evoking the era, the movie looks more like it was shot with the scant resources of the 1970s. Even so, the performances often rise above the After School Specialness of the filmmaking and its lessons. Howard brings capped anger and warmth to Lamont. In a pivotal role, Malcolm McDowell does a nice-ugly job as Laughlin, the cigar-chomping neighborhood boss who exerts a smooth, if treacherous, paternalism. Jeremy Piven is particularly loathsome as Johnny Bunkley. He’s Sean’s father and Laughlin’s muscle (not necessarily in that order), who’s been released from prison too late for a rabies shot but just in time to ply his brand of racist violence.
There is no shortage of familial drama or trauma in “The Walk.” Instead of shoring up an under-told story, this contributes to its flaws. Dramatizing the nation’s big problems — its systemic outrages — by having them play out within the confines of one or two households may have reached its limit in terms of insight. Kate’s teenage rebellion muddies the waters. And the mobster subtheme sets up a “High Noon” heroism for Bill that feels overstated. Although the reliance on it may underline a belief in the spoon-feeding some white audiences require at this late date to grasp the rot of racism.
Arguably, the story of how “The Walk” came to be is more interesting than the film itself. Director Adams met co-writer Powell while he was serving time for defrauding investors. Powell was incarcerated for drug trafficking. Years earlier in Boston, Adams’ father had a hand in the desegregation reforms. Powell’s sister was among the Black children bused. That the two connected, maintained that connection post-incarceration and took to tell the tale of their riven city, now that’s a story.
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