While Steven McQueen’s five-film anthology Small Axe presents a collection of complementary stories from London’s West Indian community, Red, White and Blue plays like a breaking point. The two installments revealed earlier on the festival circuit, Lovers Rock and Mangrove, both showcased a self-sufficient community navigating the existential threat of institutional racism, but the protagonist of Red, White and Blue aims to improve the system from the inside. Needless to say, that’s no easy task for Leroy Logan (John Boyega), who doesn’t exactly find a welcoming crowd when he becomes the sole Black officer in the Metropolitan Police Force in 1983, and Red, White and Blue finds him at constant odds with his idealism. McQueen’s compelling true-life drama compensates for some of its heavy-handed beats thanks to Boyega’s career-best performance and the fiery tone that surrounds it at every turn. The movie is both a ferocious indictment and a call to action that embodies Logan’s cause, even when it seems doomed.
Written by McQueen and Courttia Newland, Red, White and Blue hooks its central drama around a fascinating intergenerational tension. Logan’s father Ken (Steve Toussaint) detests the racist white men in uniform who hassle his people on the regular. Leroy grows up watching these frustrations and decides to take a different course. In a taut prologue from his childhood, Leroy’s harassed by some white officers outside his private school, only for his father to intervene at a key moment. His lesson to his son is straightforward: “Don’t be no roughneck and don’t bring no police to my yard.” Instead, years later, Leroy decides to become one. (When the police eventually come to Ken’s yard years later, they’re looking for their new coworker.) Initially working in forensics, Leroy reacts to his father’s latest skirmish with the cops by signing up for a rigorous training process. With Ken beaten over a parking ticket by the same officers his son hopes to work alongside, Leroy’s activism may seem destined to come up short — but as Boyega’s stern gaze often makes clear, he’s absorbed his father’s resilience by funneling it into an unrestrained fighting spirit. McQueen delivered tense, unnerving action scenes in his previous film Widows, and some of that visceral energy reemerges in the brutal training that Leroy undergoes as he makes his way through the ranks. It’s there the he faces the psychological warfare of his new white colleagues, whose disturbing locker room glances eventually give way to more overt racist aggression.
At eighty-minutes long, Red, White and Blue wastes little energy building out Leroy’s conundrum, though his developing family life and relationship to the neighborhood characters he’s known his whole life make it clear just how much he’s putting on the line. Compared to the enchanting party scenes of Lovers Rock or the prolonged courtroom showdowns of Mangrove, this installment follows a slighter narrative arc: Once Logan joins the force thirty-minutes in, there are few surprises in store. Yet McQueen and cinematographer Shabier Kirchner continue to work wonders with period details and roving camerawork (including a chase sequence through a paper factory in an engrossing long take) that enriches the complex backdrop throughout.
Leroy’s transition is far from easy. “Sometimes in life, it’s better to just blend in,” a superior officer at one point tells him. The only like-minded colleague Leroy finds is a disgruntled Pakistani recruit who lacks Leroy’s conviction that they can “change the system.” Boyega has played this sort of determined man in uniform before, in Kathryn Bigelow’s harrowing 2017 drama Detroit, but Red, White and Blue does a better job of operating on the same intense wavelength as his performance. It feels like all the sophisticated layers the actor has to suppress for three Star Wars films unleashed at once. McQueen even dares to wink at those credits when Leroy tells a friend he’s joining the force. While Boyega mustered enough hokey charm to carry his own in those movies, he’s clearly more in his element as a morally-conflicted man committed to the greater good, and here manages to root that journey in sheer credibility.
His performance at times is so strong that it outpaces the screenplay, which falls more than once into hyperbolic shout-matches and dialogue that resorts to didactic conclusions. But within that limited framework, McQueen develops an absorbing atmosphere steeped in the uncertainty that Leroy finds at each stage of his journey, and doesn’t attempt to sugarcoat how those efforts played out. Unlike Mangrove, McQueen doesn’t end Red, White and Blue with an explanatory title card about what happened next, but it’s worth noting that the real Leroy Logan went on to found the Black Police Association, start an organization for at-risk youth, and write a memoir. To that end, the latest Small Axe entry to reach audiences functions as a significant origin story defined by the sense of vanity to Leroy’s mission and what compels him to keep going anyway. With the poignance of its climactic toast, Red, White and Blue suggests that nobody can permanently fix a system designed to be broken, but it’s worth to keep on chugging to find and work for the better. Gripping in its moral complications and boiling in its anger, Red, White and Blue may be a little too taut, but it’s fiery, intimate, and prevailing tone carry the film to intriguingly nuanced, uncertain grounds.
Red, White and Blue premiered at the New York Film Festival. It will be available to stream on Amazon Prime Video as a part of the Small Axe anthology on November 20