▶︎ Red, White and Blue is available on BBC iPlayer in the UK and Amazon Prime in the US.

In the space between photo opportunities and equal opportunities stands PC Leroy Logan. Tall and proud, shoulders back, eyes front, he outwardly betrays nothing of the inner turmoil and external contradictions he faces: a genuine aspiration in search of the good faith, an individual within an institution, the embodiment of both promise and betrayal.

Logan, a former superintendent in the Metropolitan police, once used in the ads to recruit more ‘coloured’ police, was literally the poster boy for the force. In Red, White and Blue we also see that, even as the Met uses his presence to suggest barriers were being broken down, he was the subject of sustained abuse from racist colleagues, thwarted in his efforts to progress, and mistrusted by most within the Black community, including some within his own family.

In the film, Logan, played by John Boyega, says he has applied to the force to “combat negatives”, and feels “he’s got to be a bridge”. But the negatives are everywhere, which means the bridge he seeks to be can find no firm land on either side. And so the space in which he stands is suspended, without visible support, leaving him precarious and isolated, perched on a flimsy structure he has wished into being.

John Boyega in Red, White and Blue

The film is, in part, a depiction of the limits of an individual within an institution. Logan joins with good intentions. But there is only so much a person can do when confronted with the processes within a toxic structure and the culture of a discriminatory organisation. When he wears the uniform, he dons the collective burden of responsibility for a body which many Black Britons regarded as a hostile occupying force. They either cannot see his intentions for the badge, do not trust them, believe that the badge will always take precedence over the intentions, or all three. Either way, they will not cooperate.

Logan, who has a degree, is more educated than his colleagues. But, despite graduating from the police academy with top marks, he cannot progress because he fails to ‘blend in’. His disappointment, rapidly curdling into disgust and outrage, is a cruel illustration that you cannot earn, learn, behave or charm your way out of racism. Those attributes may be valuable in their own right; but they are not in themselves sufficient guarantors that your humanity will be respected.

Logan’s condition, and his episodic outbursts of rage at the discrimination he encountered, reminded me of the late Franklin McCain, one of the four young Black men who sat in at a whites-only counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1960 – one of the often noted moments in the civil rights movement. McCain once told me: “I was brought up with a major myth. I was told that if I worked hard, believed in the Constitution, the Ten Commandments and the Bill of Rights, and got a good education, I would be successful.” When he sat at the counter and was told by the Black staff in the back that being there threatened their livelihood, he said: “I realised that my parents weren’t naive in the cruel lie that they had told me. They lied to me because they loved me.”

Steve Toussaint as Kenneth Logan

The key difference is that Logan’s dad, Kenneth, did not lie to him. He does not conceal his dismay at his son’s career choice. And when Kenneth is badly beaten up by the police when challenging a bogus parking violation, those instincts appear confirmed. In this relationship, which plays a central role in the film, we see the baton pass from the migrant generation to their children. Kenneth’s Caribbean lilt lingers in contrast to Logan’s flat English vowels, his father’s desire to confront a system he sees as foreign is counterposed with Leroy’s fragile faith that it makes more sense to work within it. When Kenneth is told the police are prepared to drop all charges against him and settle over the incident in which he was beaten up, Leroy encourages him to take it.

“What d’you think, dad?” he says, standing in the court hallway in his uniform. “Playing a long game? It’s not ideal but it’s better than nothing.”

Kenneth replies: “I wan’ my day in court. That’s what day promise, right? In this country. Your day?”

John Boyega in Red, White and Blue

The precise period in which the film is set matters but remains unclear. The decor, music and occasional dance moves suggest the late 1970s. Logan’s reference to his friend Leee John’s success as a pop singer in Imagination points to early 1981.

It matters because by the end of that year Britain’s cities would go up in flames in a series of rebellions against police harassment within the broader context of Thatcherite austerity. One of Logan’s white colleagues warns him: “It’s a jungle out there.” Another tells him: “It’s us or them,” but since no one mentions the riots, one must assume they haven’t happened yet. So the space in which Logan operates and seeks to expand, attempting to effect reform and build community confidence, is already small and about to shrink even further. In another part of the city a smart young boy full of promise, Stephen Lawrence, is about to start primary school.

We leave Logan struggling to work out whether his mission is worth it, uncertain whether the bridge he seeks to build is a viable proposition, or whether he will descend to the depths of despair beneath him. Not knowing whether his task is Sisyphean or merely Herculean, and weighing the cost to himself and the society he wishes to create if he walks away – unaware that things are about to get a whole lot worse before they get better.

Further reading

Sight & Sound: the December 2020 issue

Sight & Sound: the December 2020 issue

“These are the untold stories that make up our nation”: Steve McQueen on Small Axe

By David Olusoga

“These are the untold stories that make up our nation”: Steve McQueen on Small Axe

Racism in the UK film industry: what needs to change, and who needs to change it?

By Naomi Obeng

Racism in the UK film industry: what needs to change, and who needs to change it?

The land still lies: Handsworth Songs and the English riots

By Mark Fisher

The land still lies: Handsworth Songs and the English riots

Sign up for Sight & Sound’s Weekly Film Bulletin and more

News, reviews and archive features every Friday, and information about our latest magazine once a month.