▶︎ Red, White and Blue broadcasts on BBC One and iPlayer from 29 November 2020 and streams on Amazon Prime in the US.
Reject existing systems, or change them from within? Opt out, or risk selling out? This chapter in Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology approaches this most pivotal conundrum for social and political movements in a manner at once uncompromising and warmly humane.
The source for Red, White and Blue, scripted by McQueen and Courttia Newland, is the life story of Leroy Logan, a Black 30-year veteran of the Metropolitan Police. Leroy’s initial entry into the police force horrified his father Kenneth, who had been victim of a serious incident of police brutality, and Leroy’s many career successes were countered from the off by the efforts of racist colleagues to undermine and scupper him.
McQueen’s film begins with Kenneth (Steve Toussaint) intervening angrily when the young Leroy (Nathan Vidal) is stopped by the local officers on the beat. In this brief sequence, key points are established: that Leroy is the polite, respectable child his father expects him to be; that exquisite presentation and behaviour won’t necessarily protect him from police harassment; and that Kenneth is prepared to be as forthright with the police as he is as a father. “I’m the only authority you need,” he tells Leroy after the encounter – a line that emphasises the fact that this story is about embattled masculinity as well as racism. When the adult Leroy (John Boyega) considers becoming a beat cop, his partner (Antonia Thomas) teases, “It appeals to your macho, vain sensibility!”
It is with the strong encouragement of another determined, clear-sighted woman, his best friend’s mother Jesse (Nadine Marshall), that Leroy feels able to pursue his police career. In Jesse’s family, “selling out” has paid off: her son Leee (Tyrone Huntley) has found success and recognition as lead singer with the soul band Imagination.
But if being an entertainer is a pathway for a young Black man that is acceptable to both his Black community and the white establishment, joining the police challenges both. Even Leee is outraged by Leroy’s choice. Kids on the street decry him as a ‘coconut’ (white on the inside), and his white peers conspire to make things difficult for him. Their racism starts out subtle, possibly even unconscious – “You’ve got a right jungle to work,” says Leroy’s boss as he sends him out on to the same streets he grew up on – but escalates into outright abuse.
Boyega – a global star thanks to his appearances in Episodes VII, VIII and IX of Star Wars, who spoke to indelible effect at a Black Lives Matter protest in London in June and subsequently criticised the Star Wars juggernaut for “pushing to the side” its non-white characters – plays Leroy as a contained and thoughtful man, a still point in a storm. With his anger, his physical strength and his sexuality all held in careful abeyance most of the time, Boyega embodies the Catch-22 of Leroy’s position: for any chance of advancement, this man must be a paragon, yet by being a paragon, he inflames the jealousy of his antagonists.
Boyega’s control and quietude allow breathing space to a production that makes impeccable use of sound, music and physical detail – be it the happily overstuffed living rooms and dinner tables of Leroy’s extended family, the strip-lit grimness of the hospital room in which he almost fails to recognise his bruised and battered father, or the squeak of trainers on gymnasium floor as he systematically outruns the rest of his training cohort.
In a scene that feels like the emotional centre of the whole film, McQueen lets music do the talking, Al Green’s extraordinary interpretation of the Bee Gees’ How Can You Mend a Broken Heart? playing as Kenneth drops his son off to begin his officer training. Red, White and Blue offers no easy answers with regard to the mending of hearts, relationships or broken social structures. And it opts not to remind us that, before the close of his career, the real Leroy Logan covered himself in establishment glory. Instead, it sits stoically with awkwardness – that of belonging and not belonging; of achieving and compromising; of being unjustly hated and imperfectly loved.
Red, White and Blue shows us the loneliness of the Black police reformer
By Gary Younge
Sight & Sound: the December 2020 issueSight & Sound: the December 2020 issue
“These are the untold stories that make up our nation”: Steve McQueen on Small Axe
By David Olusoga
Mangrove gives voice to Black British Power
By Kehinde Andrews
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.