Though set in the 1980s like Lovers Rock, another movie in Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series, the tone of Red, White and Blue feels much more familiar to Mangrove, a film set in the ’60s. In its short runtime, the gripping drama chronicles the early career of real-life former superintendent Leroy Logan (John Boyega). A young forensic scientist growing increasingly weary of his days locked away in a lab, Leroy decides to fulfill a childhood dream of being a police officer.
In ‘Red,White and Blue’ John Boyega plays a police officer determined to make a difference
Though he’s well-aware of racism and injustices, having even experienced some first hand, Leroy is determined to shift the Black community’s perception of the police while calling out racist treatment and politics within the force. If that sounds like a naive endeavor for a 20-something Black Londoner in the 1980s, it’s because it is.
Instead of breaking through and shattering the mold, Leroy finds himself pigeonholed and ostracized from his fellow police officers who remind him at every turn that he’s not really one of them. More painful than the enraging treatment he faces at work is what Leroy deals with at home.
Though his wife supports his new career, he’s nearly disowned by his family, especially his Jamaican-born father (Steve Toussaint). The latter has experienced harassment and an unwarranted bloody assault at the hands of police officers. He sees Leroy’s entry into the force as a betrayal. Still, moved to try and change the world as he knows it, Leroy presses forward pursuing his dream and eventually becoming one of the most celebrated and decorated members of the Metropolitan Police Force.
John Boyega and Steve Toussaint have standout performances in ‘Red,White and Blue’
Because of the short runtime, clocking in at 78 minutes, there aren’t many surprises in Red, White and Blue. Despite his education and willingness to treat others with respect, Leroy learns the hard way that his Blackness will always make him a target on the force, and a joke in the communities he’s sent to protect. Though he passes his tests and exams with flying colors, he’s continuously ridiculed, blocked, and undermined at every turn. At one point, he’s even called a “dirty n*gger” and left to handle a volatile situation on the job when no one comes to his aide as back up.
These “typical” acts of racism aren’t revolutionary and have been depicted on-screen before. However, what does stand out here are the performances. Both Boyega and Toussaint are memorizing to watch. The frustration and anger between the men sit at the film’s surface. Yet the respect that the pair have for one another allows it to simmer, never really boiling over in the way one might expect. As a result, McQueen depicts a beautiful symphony of restraint and explosion that mirrors what Leroy endures daily.
In addition to Toussaint and Boyega’s masterful work, McQueen’s story unveils the many aspects of Leroy Logan, the man in the uniform, the one who sways to Al Green and Marvin Gaye, the man who can be vulnerable with his wife, and the man who stands up to his father. Leroy is no pushover. At work, after facing one too many microaggressions and outwardly racist comments, he rages back. The anger, pain, and exhaustion pour out of him, as he calls out his colleagues and superiors for their behavior. Years of watching the police wreak havoc on his neighborhood, witnessing his father’s battered face, and his humiliation following a stop and search come thundering back toward him, forcing him to questions his dreams and aspirations. It’s very challenging to be a bridge when you aren’t allowed to build anything.
This is why Steve McQueen’s ‘Red,White and Blue’ is so powerful
Instead of being an inspirational film about a “good” and celebrated cop in the U.K., McQueen’s Red, White and Blue unfurls as a film that addresses institutional racism in the U.K.’s police forces, and one man who was determined to prove there was another way. Though Leroy served on the force for 30 years, what stands out most here is not that he squashed racism, xenophobia, and police brutality. Instead, its a film about one man who was, for better or worse, willing to try to make a difference. Leroy was ready to fight even when his cause seemed helpless.
It’s always wonderful to celebrate massive figures like Malcolm X and Marcus Garvey, who helped shape the world as we know it, but with Red, White, and Blue, McQueen reminds us that our personal journeys and the choices and decisions that we make don’t go unnoticed. After all, a lesson that Leroy learns early on is that “Your life is yours and not anyone else.”
Red, White and Blue was screened for the 2020 New York Film Festival.
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