Film Review: Small Axe: Red White and Blue (dir by Steve McQueen)

Red, White, and Blue opens with a very young Leroy Logan (Nathan Vidal) standing on a London street corner.  Behind him is the school that he attends.  He’s wearing a school uniform.  As the other students walk past him, they say hi and acknowledge the very obvious fact that Leroy is a student who is waiting to be picked up by his parents.

That, however, doesn’t matter to the two white police officers who walk up to Leroy and start to interrogate him as to why he’s standing on the street corner.  They inform Leroy that there have bee several burglaries in the area and that the burglar is a young, black male.  They start to search Leroy.  The only thing that stops them is the arrival of Leroy’s father, Ken (Steve Toussaint).  Ken reprimands the police for harassing his son.  While driving Leroy home, Ken tells Leroy that he expects his son to do two things for him.  Leroy is never to become “a roughneck” and he’s never to bring the police to his front door.

Jump forward several years and Leroy Logan (now played by John Boyega) is now grown up and working as a forensic scientist.  When his father is beaten by two police officers who claim that Ken was blocking traffic and that he was resisting arrest (neither is true), Leroy decides to channel his anger into something productive.  He applies to join the police force, hoping to bring about change from within.

Needless to say, that turns out to be more difficult than even Leroy was expecting.  At first, Leroy finds himself being used as a prop.  Knowing that they’ve got to fix their public image, the police uses Leroy as a part of their latest public relations campaign, featuring him in advertisements and news stories.  But on the streets, Leroy finds himself an outsider.  His fellow cops, the majority of whom are white, refuse to have his back and welcome him to the force by writing racist graffiti on his locker.  Meanwhile, the members of his community now distrust Leroy, accusing him of selling out and calling him a traitor.  Leroy became a police officer believing that he could be an agent of change but he soon discovers that no one is interested in changing.

At the heart of the film is Leroy’s relationship with his father.  Though Leroy joined the force to try to make life better for men like his father, he didn’t tell Ken about his decision.  In fact, Ken doesn’t find out until two police officers show up at this doorstep, checking to make sure that Leroy put the correct address on his application.  Ken believes that the system cannot be changed.  Leroy disagrees.  The film leaves it to us to decide which man is correct.

Red, White, and Blue is based on a true story.  Leroy Logan was one of the first blacks to join the London Metropolitan Police and he joined for the same reasons that are shown in the film.  Eventually, Leroy would work his way up to being a superintendent and he would help to found and later chair the Black Police Association.  Interestingly enough, the details of Leroy’s eventual success are left out of Red, White, and Blue.  Instead, the film ends with Leroy and his father at the kitchen table, still wondering if things can change.  It’s an ambiguous ending, one that’s hopeful because, even though he’s disillusioned, Leroy hasn’t given up but, at the same time, it’s also one that accepts that it’s going to take more than just one man to change the culture of the police.  It’s an ending that suggests that racism is so ingrained in society that the only way to vanquish it might be to just start all over again from the beginning.  It’s an ending that manages to be both low-key and revolutionary at the same time.

Red, White, and Blue is the third film in Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology.  It’s a deceptively simple film, one that kind of sneaks up on you and takes you by surprise.  The minute that you start to think the film is going to be just another well-intentioned liberal plea for tolerance, McQueen will throw in an unexpectedly honest scene that will shake your expectations.  For instance, when Leroy tries to help a prisoner who has been brutalized by a bunch of racist cops, his help is rejected and Leroy discovers that the prisoner hates him even more than he hates the cops who were beating on him.  The prisoner takes it for granted that the white cops are going to be brutal but he saves his most vicious scorn for someone whom he consider to be a traitor to his race.  McQueen directs in a matter-of-fact but enthralling style, emphasizing the bleak coldness of the London landscape.

John Boyega and Steve Toussaint both anchor the film with ferocious performances.  Leroy spends the majority of the film having to hold back his anger and, sometimes, his despair and Boyega does a wonderful job suggesting what’s going on behind Leroy’s outward calmness.  Boyega does get to do some yelling, of course.  When he confronts his follow police officers for refusing to respond to his calls for backup, Boyega doesn’t hold back.  But his best moments are the quiet ones, where Boyega subtly but powerfully suggests that anger and the pain that Leroy has to deal with every day.

Red, White, and Blue is a short but powerful film.  Check it out on Prime.

Music Video of the Day: It’s Not Christmas Till Somebody Cries by Carly Rae Jepsen (2020, dir by Josh Forbes)

Ain’t that the truth!?

(I know, I know.  Ain’t is not a real word and I should be embarrassed about using it.  I’m a a half a country girl and half a city girl and sometimes, the country half just demand to be heard.)

Usually, I’m the one who cries on Christmas.  This is the month that I allow myself to get sentimental and everything.  Seeing my presents.  Getting my presents.  Unwrapping my presents.  Trying my presents on.  Showing my presents off.  Seriously, it touches my heart every time.