‘Red, White and Blue’: Steve McQueen and John Boyega Try (and Fail) to Take on Racist Policing
The final chapter in the Oscar-winning filmmaker’s “Small Axe” anthology centers on a Black cop exposing police racism in 1980s England. It misses the mark, writes Cassie da Costa.
The final installment in Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology, Red, White and Blue—which debuted in this year’s New York Film Festival and will be released via Amazon Prime on Dec. 18—examines a true personal history about state violence and policing.
In 1980s England, Leroy Logan (John Boyega), born to Jamaican immigrant parents, ditches his lonely career as a cancer research scientist to join the police force—going against the wishes of his cold and stubborn father, who has himself just been viciously attacked by police. Leroy believes he can change the institution “from within,” as the cliche goes, using his standing in the community to affect racial harmony. What he doesn’t realize—his own stubbornness mixed with naivete makes this very clear—is that diversifying institutions built to destroy you is an act that can lead to much more harm than it does benefit. McQueen, however, seems less interested in the commonness of Leroy’s instincts and more in the melodrama and unusualness of his acts. That focus makes the film’s images more indelible than its ideas. Red, White and Blue, a beautifully crafted timepiece with much-yearned-for glimpses of Black British life, is politically wafer-thin.
The real Leroy Logan served for 30 years as a star in London’s Metropolitan Police and has since made a second career off of discussing his ideas about systemic racism and policing on news programs. Logan is seen by many in mainstream U.K. media as having fundamentally transformed the Met, as it’s called; he’s touted as a shining representative of the power of diversity in leadership in our most corrupt institutions. McQueen takes this image and seems to plaster it on screen without seriously questioning the framework that holds it up.
Before we see Boyega’s Leroy take on police training with aplomb and later struggle to deal with racist colleagues and superiors, we witness his father’s brutal assault. Mr. Logan is a truck driver with a reasonable and fearless distaste for the police. When two white officers harass him for having his truck parked on the side of the street, Mr. Logan insists he’s left enough room for cars to pass, and pulls out a tape measure to prove it. The officers take Mr. Logan’s assertiveness as an excuse to batter him. As the police kick a fallen Mr. Logan again and again, the (I believe, also white) businessowner who had just sold him his lunch down the road tries to run up to defend his customer, but one of his cooks holds him back.
When he arrives at the hospital, Leroy’s reaction to his father’s swollen and bloodied face seems off. Boyega plays the character intelligently, but there are moments where McQueen’s direction is misguiding. Leroy is concerned and scared but also faraway, perhaps already thinking ahead to his enrollment. It’s as if his concern is less about his father’s wellbeing and state of mind and more about the sense of promise previously surrounding Leroy’s burgeoning future that’s been shattered.
Mr. Logan, rather than mourning a different timeline, gets a lawyer—he’s fired up, and ready to sue the Met and get his day in court. The younger Logan is, for his part, convinced by a white friend, an aunt, and his own wife—Gretl (Antonia Thomas trying her hand at what I assume was a Kenyan accent)—to uphold his illusions by joining the police. At one point, Leroy lashes out at his angry father, saying that it was him who preached education and respectability and not “playing with the Black kids” to him and his sister. So, why not join the police? Beyond that monologue, and a brief flashback at the beginning of the film, we don’t learn much more about the underlying tensions between them.
The very public discourses on police violence and racial justice over the last few years in Western, predominantly white nations, might have offered a great opportunity for a Black British director to challenge rather than re-stage the triumphant and spiritual tone of the real Leroy Logan’s story (which he shared in his memoir Closing Ranks, published this September). Of course, optioning the rights to a story like this, so beloved by political moderates in Britain and elsewhere who are more inspired by reconciliation than transformation, means buying into its idea of justice. Today, Logan acknowledges that there are still serious problems with policing in the U.K., in fact, many of the same problems he observed as a young Londoner and then as an officer. That he still cannot let go of such an institution, and sees it—for some reason McQueen never clarifies in the film—as the primary avenue through which to “serve” his community, despite all that he has borne witness to, offers the raw material for a compelling film that, unfortunately, McQueen did not make.