REVIEW: Small Axe – Red, White and Blue (NYFF 2020)
Red, White and Blue is the second true story from Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series to play the festival circuit and in some ways, is a counterpoint to the first – Mangrove. While Mangrove is a story of the police’s harassment campaign against a Caribbean restaurant in Notting Hill in the late 60s, told from the point-of-view of the victims of the harassment, Red White and Blue is the story of a police officer in the early 80s. But this story is more complicated than it may first appear. Because the police officer is Black.
After John Boyega gave one of the best breakout performances of the decade in Joe Cornish’s Attack the Block (2011), his casting as what seemed to be a central role in the Star Wars sequel trilogy was surely a sign that he would have a exciting career and his pick of roles. But, unfortunately, it hasn’t quite worked out that way. With some poor choices – The Circle (2017), Detroit (2017) and Pacific Rim: Uprising (2018) combined with his Star Wars character being sidelined, things have not been looking good for Boyega. It is extremely gratifying, therefore, that he has finally been paired with a director of the calibre of Steve McQueen and been given a central role worthy of the talent he demonstrated while fighting fluffy black aliens in a South London tower block. Allow it.
It is also exciting to see that Antonia Thomas plays a part (even though it’s pretty small) in this Small Axe series. Thomas is best known for her roles on TV shows Misfits and Lovesick and again, should be getting way more work that exploits her dramatic, comedic and singing talents. Boyega plays Leroy Logan, who witnesses his father Kenneth (Steve Toussaint) assaulted by the police when he is quite young. His father instills a strong work ethic into Leroy and he becomes a forensic scientist. It is an Aunt, who is a liaison between the Black community and the police, who persuades Leroy to become a ‘bobby’ (as they’re known in the UK).
The rest of the film (or episode?) unfolds, centering Leroy and the impossible no-win situation he finds himself in. His Black friends now distrust or outright despise him, his father is angry and confused about his decision and he experiences racism from his white colleagues. He becomes the face of ‘coloured recruitment’ to encourage more diversity in the force and while that is obviously needed, it is extremely hard to be the canary in the coalmine. He has an Asian friend (Assad Zaman) on the force, but he is struggling just as much and feels like quitting on a daily basis.
Boyega is terrific here, finally getting to demonstrate his range. We see Leroy constantly having to shift and codeswitch, depending on the situation and who he is speaking to. When he has to go through life suppressing parts of himself, when does he get to truly be free? Perhaps at home with Gretl (Thomas) and his baby? He is clearly passionate about his career and believes he has a calling and is doing the right thing, but the daily battles grind him down and he understandably reaches breaking points. If you look up the real Leroy Logan, you will discover that he did stick it out and ended up rising through the ranks of an institution that relentlessly tried to chew him up and spit him out. Resilience and defiance were huge themes in Mangrove and Leroy is certainly putting up his own form of protest by showing up to work every day. But just by being part of the force, does that make him complicit in its actions against his own community?
Red, White and Blue is a challenging film that asks difficult questions of its audience. Like so much of what has been released this year, it could not be coming out at a more relevant time. It is certainly good that the UK – who may look at American police brutality and say “that’s not us” – can see examples from the recent past and question whether those elements have completely left the British police forces. The best thing about this entry to the Small Axe series is undoubtedly that it showcases John Boyega’s brilliance, which we have barely seen in the nine years since Attack the Block. Finally, he gets to stretch his acting muscles and fulfill the potential he showed all that time ago. Here’s hoping he continues to work with directors who use him properly.