While Steve McQueen’s five-film anthology “Small Axe” presents a collage 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, “Mangrove” and “Lovers Rock,” both showcase a self-sufficient community navigating the existential threat of institutional racism, but the protagonist of “Red, White and Blue” aims to improve the system by joining it.
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 circa 1983, and “Red, White and Blue” finds him at constant odds with his idealism. McQueen’s gripping true-life drama compensates for some of its more heavy-handed beats thanks to Boyega’s staggering, 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 if it’s doomed from the start.
Co-written by British-Caribbean playwright Courttia Newland (who also scripted “Lovers Rock” with McQueen), “Red, White and Blue” hooks its central drama around a fascinating intergenerational tension. Logan’s father Ken (Steve Toussaint) detests the xenophobic white men in uniform who hassle his people on the regular (and understandably so, as he experienced the same timeline as the oppressed activists of “Mangrove”). 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 blunt: “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. At first stuck 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 unbridled fighting spirit. McQueen stepped up to deliver tense, unnerving action scenes in “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 that he faces the psychological warfare of his new white colleagues, whose disturbing locker room glances eventually give way to more overt racist aggression.
At 78 minutes, “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 mesmerizing party scenes of “Lovers Rock” or the prolonged courtroom showdowns of “Mangrove,” this installment follows a slighter narrative arc: Once Logan joins the force 30 minutes in, there are few surprises in store. Yet McQueen and cinematographer Shabier Kirchner continue to work wonders with colorful period details and roving camerawork (including a chase sequence through a paper factory staged in a gripping long take) that enriches the complex backdrop throughout.
Once again, the proceedings have been laced with a killer period-appropriate soundtrack, though in this case it moves beyond the reggae tunes of the other stories in favor of more widely popular hits like “Uptown Girl,” as if to mirror Leroy’s efforts to step beyond his insular roots.
That’s no easy transition. “Sometimes in life, it’s better to just blend in,” a superior officer says. 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 had to suppress for three “Star Wars” unleashed at once. McQueen even dares to wink at those credits when Leroy tells a friend he’s joining the force. “You gonna be a Jedi or something?” he’s told. (“Return of the Jedi” would have been out at the time.) While Boyega mustered enough hokey charm to carry his own in those movies, he’s clearly more in his element as morally-conflicted men committed to the greater good, and here manages to root that journey in sheer credibility.
He’s so good, in fact, that the performance often outpaces the screenplay, which falls more than once into hyperbolic shouting matches and dialogue that resorts to didactic conclusions. (“Someone’s got to be the bridge,” “Someone has to take on the world,” etc.). 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 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 the struggle anyway.
“Red, White and Blue” premiered in the Main Slate at the 2020 New York Film Festival. It will stream on Amazon as part of the “Small Axe” anthology on Friday, November 20.