Taking place in 1972, Tuscaloosa tells a story intertwining tensions about the Vietnam war, race, and toxic relationships. The vessel that ties these themes together comes in the form of Billy, a groundskeeper at a psychiatric hospital. Tuscaloosa has a tricky balancing act to perform with tying everything to Billy while also giving each theme its own time to develop. For the most part, the balancing act is done decently enough.
When Billy meets Virginia, a patient at the hospital, he quickly falls in love and she becomes the center of his attention. The problem is that Virginia acts in a mentally and emotionally unstable way, doing things like making Billy break her out of her room, breaking his window with a rock, making him drive her to a beach that’s several hours away in the middle of the night, etc. While these are supposed to make their relationship seem interesting, it adds to the aimlessness that Billy portrays throughout the film. When he thinks he’s found some sort of direction or purpose, he immediately clings to it. It’s toxic and even when we are told more about Virginia and why she is the way she is, it doesn’t even matter because it’s difficult to believe anything she says.
The tensions relating to war and race are also complex. The black man who Billy considers a brother due to their mothers running off together when they were children, Nigel, wants nothing to do with him because he feels like Billy doesn’t understand or care about what his people are going through. Billy seems to want to connect with Nigel any way he can but can’t find the right way to do it. Nigel finds himself on the oppressed side of the law constantly, to the point where he and the group he runs with take matters into their own hands by doing things like throwing Molotov cocktails at the police station and police cars. The racial divide portrayed in Tuscaloosa gives more insight to two things: the first being the mistreatment that blacks went through, their fear of being drafted into a war fighting for people who see them as disposable and the extremes they went to in order to incite a revolution. The second is that race relations are difficult, even where people like Billy want to help but have no idea how to and don’t seem to want to educate themselves on what’s going on; this also plays into the theme of toxic relationships, with Billy holding onto something nearly nonexistent and Nigel trying to liberate himself from Billy, who offers him no real solace as a friend or ally.
Tuscaloosa has some flaws, like not being able to fully explore every idea it presents and not fully making sense of why some of its characters do some of the things they do, but overall, it’s a solid film. There aren’t any bad performances given and the actors make the film more watchable than the premise makes it seem like would be. There are certain points where the film drags a bit and it takes some time before it picks back up, but it only happens a few times.