'Red, White and Blue': Film Review | NYFF 2020

Red, White and Blue
Courtesy NYFF

John Boyega in 'Red, White and Blue'

A stunning reflection on race, policing and the drive to make a difference.

John Boyega plays Leroy Logan, a real-life cop who challenged the entrenched racism of London’s Metropolitan Police Force from within, in this 1980s-set drama from Steve McQueen's 'Small Axe' anthology for Amazon.

Even without yet having seen all five of the original films in Steve McQueen's riveting Small Axe anthology for Amazon and BBC, which surveys two decades of West Indian experience in London, it seems appropriate that the series concludes with a story of Black resistance embodied in the determination of one idealistic man. After celebrating the nourishing force of community in Lovers Rock and the power of collective protest in Mangrove, McQueen intensifies the focus in Red, White and Blue on individual action. The subject is distinguished Metropolitan Police Force veteran Leroy Logan, played in a performance of smoldering gravitas, maturity and integrity by John Boyega.

Logan is credited as an instrumental figure in promoting better communication between Britain's law enforcement and its minority ethnic communities, his advocacy for diversity in affinity-based active policing helping to bring about much-needed internal reforms.

The strength of this treatment, co-written by McQueen with novelist Courttia Newland, is that it merely suggests the first steps on the path toward more equitable criminal justice while concentrating on Logan's entry into the force in the early 1980s. His disillusionment with the institutional racism he encounters almost causes him to quit, and the film chooses to end on a quiet but persuasive note of hope and resolve, with the struggle still largely ahead of him. In fact, McQueen tacitly hints that racism within the force remains an open wound, even after a 30-year career that saw Logan awarded an MBE by the Queen for his contribution.

Making a unique police drama in itself is a considerable achievement. Red, White and Blue earns that distinction partly through its skilled avoidance of the standard beats of stories about rookie cops chafing against the establishment. But it's also a direct result of Logan's remarkable qualities as a real-life protagonist that enable it to transcend conventional bio-drama.

The son of Jamaican immigrants, he began his professional life in forensic science before becoming motivated to join the force and challenge its racism from within. He did this despite bitter opposition from his father Kenneth (Steve Toussaint), who was hospitalized after receiving a vicious beating by two cops and then slapped with false charges that were later overturned. Kenneth's refusal of a settlement — "I want my day in court," he fumes — is a thread that Newland and McQueen's screenplay only partly explores. But the slight imbalance doesn't lessen the impact of some beautiful scenes of father-son conflict and connection, played with great sensitivity by both actors.

The seeds of their differences are planted in an establishing scene when Leroy is still a uniformed schoolboy (Nathan Vidal plays him at a young age) and his father arrives to pick him up outside the gates only to find cops going through his bag in a routine stop and search. Kenneth's surly words with them show he's not a man to be intimidated, and his stern manner with his son instantly sketches in the strict values he imposes in the boy's upbringing. "I am the only authority you need," he tells the blameless Leroy, warning him to stick to his studies and stay away from bad influences. "Don't be a roughneck and don't be bringing no police to my yard." Years later, when they first clash over Leroy's intention to become a cop, he tells his father: "You wanted us to be more British than the British."

McQueen observes this family dynamic with admirable economy, showing the docile role of Leroy's loving mother (Joy Richardson) and the more muted presence in their home of his sister Hyacinth (Seroca Davis). This is very much a traditional patriarchal structure with pressure on Leroy to make something of himself. But that doesn't exclude genuine warmth, notably in a lovely moment early on with a family Scrabble game. The generational shift is evident in scenes with Leroy's supportive wife Gretl (Antonia Thomas), who plays a more active role in his decision-making, particularly in moments of doubt.

Leroy's running buddy from the local athletics track, Ed (Mark Stanley), is a cop who encourages him to join the force, which is campaigning for African-Caribbean recruits. He laughs off the suggestion at first, but in a visual motif that allows Boyega expressive latitude to show Leroy's evolving feelings toward law enforcement and his potential role in it, we see the cogs of his mind turning as he gazes at Ed's uniform on a hanger. The cop offers to take him on a ride-along to give him a taste of police life.

That's before the brutal run-in with two bullying cops that leaves Kenneth with multiple injuries and a bloodied, swollen face. McQueen and his cinematographer Shabier Kirchner, who brings a different look to each of the Small Axe films, make the interesting choice to shoot the violence from underneath Kenneth's truck, that partial concealment of the incident somehow making it all the more graphic. This tactic of shooting from odd angles — through car windshields, doorways, the top of stairwells — is used throughout to strong effect.

Kenneth is not the only one opposed to Leroy becoming a cop. In a winking in-joke, his childhood friend Leee John (Tyrone Huntley), who would become the lead singer and keyboardist of popular soul-funk group Imagination, responds to news of him joining the force with: "What, you want to be a Jedi or something?" Later, he learns that many people of color view any Black man who would join the police force as a traitor, an experience shared by Asif (Assad Zaman), a fellow probationary constable of Pakistani origin.

Leroy's close bond with Leee and his soul-brother taste in music serve as a cue for some choice vintage cuts heard on the soundtrack. No less than the other anthology entries reviewed to date, music is key here to modulating the tone, and one scene in which taciturn, quietly angry Kenneth drives his son to the police training academy is a steadily building emotional knockout, accompanied by the sweet, slow groove of Al Green crooning "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart" on the car radio.

Despite coming through all his courses with top marks and being asked to serve as the face of the recruitment drive for "colored officers," Leroy is treated with a clear hint of condescending suspicion by his supervisors and kept at a wary distance by most of his fellow recruits. He does nothing to dissolve that gap when he introduces himself at the start of training: "I'm not here to make any friends. I'm here to help bring change to this organization from the inside out." Later, he says to Asif, "Someone's gotta be the bridge."

That proves increasingly difficult once he's assigned a patrol beat and chooses to return to his home turf of Hackney in northeast London. The bulked-up Boyega's simmering rage is commanding as he witnesses anti-immigrant vandalism in the community and excessive force being used on arrestees of color, or experiences first-hand the racist hostility and slurs of smirking colleagues. His compelling performance makes it hard to believe this physically imposing, firmly grounded man is the same cocky kid who had his breakout less than 10 years ago in the B-movie delight, Attack the Block.

The new film's major action set-piece is a technically complex series of tracking sequences when Leroy pursues a suspect through a warren of warehouse and factory spaces, enduring a physical pounding while white officers in the vicinity ignore his call for backup. It's a tremendously tense, exciting sequence that then resonates as Leroy bursts in on a rec-room game of pool to chew them out with bitter disgust. There's no grandstanding in Boyega's powerhouse delivery here, just the righteous fury of a good man appalled by the cowardly discrimination of his peers.

That rude awakening is a turning point faced, the script suggests, by every officer of color in a police force at that time still very much majority white. Asif responds one way while Leroy, his spirit shaken but not destroyed, responds in another. At a time when the ongoing conversation of police reform has acquired the utmost urgency, the story has blistering relevance.

Shifting back to the central relationship of Leroy's rapport with his father, a man deeply saddened by the slow-turning wheel of change, the film's closing note is both abrupt and stirring; somehow, it feels just right. That open-ended conclusion reinforces how personal this long-nurtured project is for McQueen, a Brit born in 1969 of West Indian descent, whose kinship with his characters informs every frame.

The first of the Small Axe films, Mangrove, drops Nov. 20 on Amazon, with subsequent entries premiering each Friday for five weeks — Lovers Rock on Nov. 27, Red, White and Blue Dec. 4, Alex Wheatle Dec. 11 and Education Dec. 18.

Covering predominantly real-life stories that take place from the late 1960s through the mid '80s, this is a series comparable in its cultural specificity, its incisive sense of time and place and its enveloping love for the community it depicts to the late August Wilson's great Pittsburgh Cycle of ten plays chronicling African American experience across the 20th century. McQueen and his collaborators are working on a smaller scale and in a more limited time frame, but this is an expansive portrait of Black resilience, impressive in its ambition and scope, as well as its thematic cohesion.

Even with two more entries still to be seen, it seems safe to assume this will be one of the most satisfying prestige streaming events of the year from a director working at the peak of his powers. 

Venue: New York Film Festival (Main Slate)
Production companies: BBC Film, Turbine Studios, Lammas Park, in association with Amazon Studios, Emu Films
Distributor: Amazon, BBC Studios
Cast: John Boyega, Steve Toussaint, Antonia Thomas, Tyrone Huntley, Nathan Vidal, Jaden Oshenye, Nadine Marshall, Joy Richardson, Seroca Davis, Mark Stanley, Assad Zaman
Director: Steve McQueen
Screenwriters: Courttia Newland, Steve McQueen
Producers: Michael Elliott, Anita Overland
Executive producers: Tracey Scoffield, David Tanner, Steve McQueen, Lucy Richer, Rose Garnett
Director of photography: Shabier Kirchner

Production designer: Helen Scott
Costume designer: Sinéad Kidao
Music: Mica Levi
Editors: Chris Dickens, Steve McQueen
Casting: Gary Davy
81 minutes