The events of this year have opened many eyes to the racially-motivated violence of police institutions around the world. Into this climate comes Steve McQueen’s Red, White and Blue, the third in his acclaimed Small Axe series. Taking place in ’80s London, it stars John Boyega as Leroy Logan, a research scientist who becomes a police officer to fight racial prejudice in the force. That puts him at odds with his father Kenneth (Steve Toussaint), a first-generation immigrant from Jamaica who is seeking his day in court after being assaulted by white police.
There’s a lot to admire about Leroy’s quest to reform a racist police department from within. We follow his journey from training all the way through to graduation as he strives to be better than his bigoted colleagues. But he’s naive to the enormity of his task, which becomes clearer as the film progresses. Is it worth putting yourself through hell to try and initiate change in an establishment that is unwilling to do so, no matter how perfect you are?
That this story is still so relevant 40 years after the fact would suggest not, but McQueen and his co-writer Courttia Newland offer no easy answers while doing well to give both viewpoints equal weight. However, more could still have been said. Lovers Rock, the second part of the Small Axe series, was less than an hour long, but it felt complete. It’s a surprise when Red, White and Blue abruptly ends after 80 minutes, not least because it’s unlike McQueen to leave meat on the bone.
Still, those 80 minutes are gripping. Boyega has made headlines recently for expressing frustration at his increasingly limited role in the Star Wars franchise, but here he plays a part that’s worthy of his abilities. As Leroy’s initial optimism is slowly eaten away by racial slurs, missed promotions, and a silent response to his calls for backup, Boyega’s emotions change from pride to anger in his finest performance yet.
He’s matched every step of the way by Toussaint, whose love for his son is matched only by frustration when coming to terms with Leroy’s decisions. As striking as the verbal confrontations are between them, it’s in the scenes with less dialogue that these actors do their finest work.
The best of these moments owe much to cinematographer Shabier Kirchner – in charge of the entire Small Axe anthology – whose clever camera placement bolsters multiple scenes. In one especially effective sequence, the camera remains in the car while just outside Kenneth and Leroy say their goodbyes ahead of the latter’s departure for police training. It tells you all you need to know without a single word being spoken. Sumptuous shots like these make Red, White and Blue feel special, even if incomplete.
- Director: Steve McQueen
- Starring: John Boyega, Steve Toussaint, Joy Richardson
- Release date: November 29 (BBC One and iPlayer)