As Steve McQueen’s Small Axe stories stack up, the idiosyncratic anthology becomes more and more remarkable. Red, White and Blue is the third episode to be screened — after New York Film Festival opener Lovers Rock and the harrowing true story of the Mangrove Nine in Mangrove — but it will be the fifth and final installment released when the feature-length episodes roll out to the public in successive weeks from November 20th to December 18th.
All five films focus on the degradation, beauty, and triumph of West Indian communities in London from the late 1960s to the mid-1980s, drawing out the vibrance and resistance of Black life in a time and place rarely depicted on screen. Small Axe cinematographer Shabier Kirchner continues to deliver breathtaking work, having now shot not one but three of the most ravishing films of the year. The rich but less pronounced 35mm grain of Red, White and Blue evokes color and texture as prominently as Lovers Rock and Mangrove, yet each maintain a distinct style.
Co-written by McQueen and novelist, playwright, and fellow West London native Courttia Newland, Red, White and Blue is a rousing call to action and a challenging, nuanced depiction of what it looks like for some to get the slow-turning wheel that is institutional change moving. It tells the story of Leroy Logan (John Boyega), a real Metropolitan Police constable who, after witnessing his father’s criminal assault by two white officers on duty, joined the force in 1983 with the intention of illuminating discrimination and dismantling racism from within.
A former forensic scientist and standout athlete, Leroy excels in his training despite the fury and disappointment he faces from his community and his father Kenneth (Steve Toussaint). Once in the force, he is invariably caught between that communal despondency and the cruel bigotry of the overwhelmingly white officers he works with, both sides spurring him into a more passionate pursuit of his goal and tempting him to throw in the towel in their own ways.
But his wife, Gretl (Antonia Thomas), refuses to let him quit, reminding him of the essence of his work and the risk and responsibility she and so many others have taken on in the community by outwardly supporting him. McQueen and Newland are profound and insightful in their storytelling method, helping viewers who can’t know the Black experience firsthand better understand the scope and complexity of Black resilience and the ugly modern history that continues to try to thwart it.
Boyega gives a revelatory, multifaceted performance, the kind you carry with you long after the credits have rolled and the years have passed. Leroy is a historical proxy for Boyega’s real-life emergence as a fervent leader and organizer against racism, police brutality, and institutional injustice, so it’s no surprise that the actor brings a level of compassion and ardor to the role that few could replicate. Simply put, it’s his best performance to date.
In Leroy’s neighborhood, the youth call him Judas to his face. In the precinct, he finds sickening racial slurs written on his locker and sits in compliant silence when his British Ron Swanson-esque superior derogatorily calls his neighborhood a “jungle,” among other awful things. Leroy’s ears are practically steaming for most of the film, but he is an extraordinarily wise, temperate force for good, ever aware of the nefarious nature of the institution he signed up to change and its opposition toward him. However, Leroy is far from subdued in uniform.
Leroy knows exactly when to erupt in the face of injustice, and he capitalizes on those opportunities with righteous indignation. Likewise, he knows when to be gentle and open, the love at the center of his relationship with his father materializing in profound ways as his groundbreaking narrative charges forth. Tensions rise at work and pacify at home, cops and community alike seeing Leroy exemplify the radical difference between communal and criminal policing. Yet while effectively steeped in its time and place, Red, White and Blue clearly addresses the 2020 socio-political climate that has evolved on a global scale since the police murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
One can recognize the dire impetus in real-world refrains like ACAB (“All Cops Are Bad”), which seeks abolishment and aims to recognize the complicit nature of working within a law enforcement system that is founded on and financed by explicit corruption. Yet, one can simultaneously recognize the impact of someone as courageous as Leroy Logan, who would later be promoted to superintendent (despite career-long discrimination) and awarded an MBE – the third highest-ranking Order of the British Empire award – by the Queen for his “significant contribution to policing and diversity issues in the capital.”
McQueen and company present Leroy as living, breathing proof that nothing about true change is simple. Leroy is a testament to both the evolution that can stem from ethically working within the system and the necessity of institutional abolition (“Sometimes I think the Earth needs to be scorched, replanted – so something good will come of it…something good.”). Like the ethical NYPD cops in 2018’s Crime + Punishment, Leroy is a thought-provoking case for all of us to consider in determining our role in fighting racism in our communities and in communities abroad. His story is one of the galvanizing few that offers hope in the worldwide pursuit of racial equality. As the West Indian proverb goes, “If you are the big tree, we are the small axe.”