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NYFF Review: Red, White and Blue (Small Axe)

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Steve McQueen’s Small Axe is shaping up to be something special. The anthology of five feature-length films chronicles different lives from the 1960s through the 1980s in London’s West Indian community. The entire project, as a whole, focuses on black joy, black ingenuity, and black perseverance. Three of the five movies debuted at this year’s New York Film Festival. The other two installments, Education and Alex Wheatle, will be available later this year when Small Axe streams on BBC One and Amazon Prime Video.

While Red, White and Blue (the last episode of Small Axe) feels like a standalone exploration of systemic racism in law enforcement driven by an impassioned performance from John Boyega, it’s also a finale in conversation with the other films in the anthology. This story of a black man who becomes a police officer in the early 1980s feels like a bookend to Mangrove, in which the police discriminated against the black community during the ’70s and the community fought back. The top 40 needle drops in Red, White and Blue also feel distinct from the predominantly reggae tracks heard in the Lovers Rock house party.

Like the other Small Axe films, Red, White and Blue is both a recreation of the past and a commentary on the present. That urgency may explain the awestruck chill that ran through my body as soon as the end credits appeared. The final moments are understated and unexpected, but I felt like I witnessed a baton passed from one generation to another, and then held out to the viewer to consider a never-ending moral struggle.

Red, White and Blue – Small Axe
Director: Steve McQueen
Release Date: December 13, 2020 (BBC One/iPlayer); December 18, 2020 (Amazon Prime Video)
Rating: TBD

Red, White and Blue is based on the true story of Leroy Logan (Boyega). An Islington-born son of Jamaican immigrants, Logan worked as a research scientist before serving in London’s Metropolitan Police for 30 years. He reached the title of Superintendent and retired in 2013. Logan saw some progress in community engagement and police reform during his time on the force, but he’s noted in recent interviews that the progress seems to have eroded.

Red, White and Blue only covers the early years of Logan’s career, and McQueen provides ample reminders of the overbearing white supremacy present in law enforcement. Logan is one of just a few people of color on the force. All of his fellow cadets are white, and all of the paintings on the walls are of white politicians, royals, and officers. When interviewing for a job in law enforcement, Logan says to the all-white hiring committee, “I don’t suppose you get many people from my background.” A beat passes before Logan clarifies: “Science.” It’s a clever, almost sitcom-y moment that runs counter to the overt racism displayed by the rest of the police.

Outside of the force, Logan faces distrust from other members of the West Indian community who think he’s either foolish or a traitor for becoming a cop. His own father, Kenneth (Steve Toussaint), seethes quietly about his son’s choice. The film opens with Logan as a child getting stopped and frisked by the cops. His father shouts the officers away for blatant discrimination. Years later, Kenneth is brutalized by two white officers without cause.

John Boyega as Leroy Logan in Red, White and Blue, part of Steve McQueen's Small Axe

Small Axe as a whole may be about the need for solidarity, yet throughout Red, White and Blue, we watch Logan constantly forced into isolation for his decisions both at work and in the community. Not only does Logan have to be an exceptional black man to even be considered for a job in law enforcement, but he also has to do a lot of that work on his own if he wants to change the system from within. His main support comes from a young Pakistani police officer, the only other person of color in that station, yet the two are forced to suffer the bigotry around them in silence (be it from fellow officers or superiors). How do outsiders build solidarity and community in an exclusionary institution that is resistant to change? I think it’s also worth asking how rare legitimately good cops are, and how many of them are pushed out or worn down by the system before they can do anything worthwhile?

Boyega’s remarkable performance makes Red, White and Blue a riveting watch in addition to vital social commentary. He’s naturally charismatic when with his girlfriend, Gretl (Antonia Thomas), and measured yet open when putting on a face for superiors. On the flip side, there are scenes where he exudes righteous anger, fueled by equal parts bravery and frustration. It’s the rage of an optimist realizing the scope of their fight. Boyega’s always had a spark as an actor since Attack the Block, but he’s rarely been given a role to showcase his full range of talents. Red, White and Blue is easily his best role and best performance, and may be a bright sign of where his career is headed. I can’t wait to see Boyega become the leading man he was always meant to be.

I couldn’t help but read more into the role given Boyega’s activism in recent months. His Black Lives Matter speech in Hyde Park following the death of George Floyd was one of the most emotional statements by any celebrity during a summer of protest against police brutality and systemic racism. There’s also his interview with British GQ in which he took Disney and the Star Wars franchise to task for their white supremacy and tokenism. Fittingly in Red, White and Blue, Logan becomes the face of black recruitment for London’s police force. The police may value Logan for the outward display of diversity, yet in reality, the police force devalues him as a person and doesn’t really care about black lives. There’s another nod to tokenism and Star Wars in Red, White and Blue. While Logan is hanging out with his best friend Leee John (Tyrone Huntley), frontman of the band Imagination, he first mentions his intentions of “joining the force.” Leee replies, “What, you going to become a Jedi?” Gosh, if Leee only knew about Finn’s fate.

John Boyega in Red, White and Blue, part of Steve McQueen's Small Axe anthology

The use of songs by Imagination—as well as tracks by Al Green, Gloria Jones, and Billy Joel—highlights the noticeable lack of reggae or any Caribbean music in this Small Axe installment. It’s one of many ways the film explores the tension of assimilation that’s common in immigrant families. When couples immigrate and have kids in a new country, there’s often an overcompensation to make their children blend in and then excel. Notice Kenneth’s thick Jamaican accent while Leroy Logan speaks with a London accent, or the way Kenneth would rather listen to no music at all after his son switches the dial from something West Indian to “Tainted Love.” His father wants his son to become a scientist to prove a Jamaican can be just as smart and prestigious as any Londoner, and bristles at the idea that his educated son would simply become a mere cop. Watching Toussaint and Boyega perform together is fascinating. I’m especially impressed by the way Toussaint communicates the conflicted feelings of a father who is unable to express all of his emotions—that brooding, silent heap of disappointment, anger, and love for a son becoming too much of a Londoner even though that was the goal.

It wasn’t until recently that I realized “small axe” is a play on words. It’s a homophone for “small acts.” Past actions make future ones possible, and that adds another layer to the shared stories of the West Indian community through time. The struggles in Mangrove to combat the police by outsmarting them in court paved the way for Logan to pursue a career in law enforcement and attempt to change the system from within. It’s no wonder that an older generation would be so suspicious about the chances of any black person becoming a police officer. Logan, still an idealist, tries to reach out to the community as best as he can. For a community so used to racial profiling and discrimination, there’s good reason to distrust the cops, but maybe Logan might be okay. Maybe. Building that trust will take more than one man, and evidently more than thirty years.

And even then, look where we are now. That tension between past and present is the reason why this 80-minute film strikes such an ambivalent but fitting closing note for the Small Axe series. It will feel to many viewers like Red, White and Blue ends too soon. Where’s the hint of the positive change Logan made? Where’s the hope? Where do we get a comforting sense of a world made better? Maybe that’s intentional. A better world is still being fought for, and must always be.

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Exceptional

8.6

Red, White and Blue is a layered closing note to Steve McQueen's Small Axe anthology. John Boyega delivers a career-best performance that hopefully signals the kind of work he'll do in the future.

Hubert Vigilla
Brooklyn-based fiction writer, film critic, and long-time editor and contributor for Flixist. A booster of all things passionate and idiosyncratic.