Director: Steve McQueen
Stars: John Boyega, Steve Toussaint, Antonia Thomas
“Is that it?”
It’s the first thought that clapped into my mind as Steve McQueen cut to black and the credits began, joined by a wave of disappointment and a flutter of longing for greater resolution. It may be your reaction, too. But this sense of a non-ending reads as false once reflected upon, and in engendering a sense of having been denied something, McQueen may have come upon a masterstroke.
For the third in his Small Axe series of films, we’re redirected to the late ’70s. Leroy Logan (John Boyega) is working toward a career in forensic science but is encouraged to change focus by a friend who recommends joining the local beat. His girlfriend, Gretl (Antonia Thomas), supports the move. His father Ken (Steve Toussaint) takes a less favourable approach. Having built up years of justified resentment – and having received a vicious police beating without provocation – he receives the news secondhand. For its opening act Red, White and Blue takes on the persona of a kitchen sink drama with a decidedly soap opera flavour.
While injustice is prevalent across this series of films, the quest for positive change seems to be a growing commonality also. From the outcome of the trial of the Mangrove Nine, to the positive activism of a Saturday night blues party, the work thus far has shown us the varying ways taking a stand has made a difference to the people of London’s West Indian community. Leroy is well aware of the institutional problems within the Metropolitan Police, but he is young and filled with ambition and idealism. His intent is to bring about reform from within, chiefly through a misty-eyed idea of community outreach.
The complex reality of the situation wears on him. Leroy comes to realise that, for most, the uniform itself is a barrier to any form of trust or healing. A symbol that has been sullied beyond his ability to rehabilitate it. More-so than the previous two films, Red, White and Blue confronts a sense of growing despair in the face of racism and intolerance, and how the rot of these things can shake one’s belief in better things.
Donning the uniform, Leroy becomes a pariah among the Black community he patrols, called names like “Judas”. More troubling is the hostile reception he receives from his peers at his first posting. For instance, Leroy and a colleague, PC Asif Kamali’s (Assad Zaman), are engaging in a civil conversation in the station cafeteria when they are drowned out by the disrespectful tirades of their white comrades. The scene is powerful both in its literal and symbolic representation of such a toxic, vocal subset of society. Racist daubings on Logan’s locker continue to apply the pressure (Boyega wasn’t told what would be scrawled there, so his reaction in the scene is quite genuine).
Boyega’s very physicality conveys the internal dichotomy of the character; torn between familial approval, ambition and ideals. The fiery integrity that he brings to the piece has a keen ’70s precedent, and McQueen’s film often feels like a kind of British Serpico. But where Al Pacino and Sidney Lumet tore into institutionalised bribery and corruption, Boyega and McQueen tackle unblinking racial hatred. Later, Leroy finds himself hung out to dry when requiring backup. As great a director as McQueen is – and he’s certainly one of the finest working in the UK today – the ongoing similarity to Lumet’s classic is sometimes tough to overcome
As important is the ongoing side-story of Ken’s battle for his ‘day in court’ with the police officers who beat him senselessly in the street – a strand of the piece that plays like an echo of the Mangrove narrative… only shorn of any sense of resounding triumph or finality. Father and son may both wind up despondent, but it leads them to a place of commonality. Leroy’s journey here is to a kind of recognition. One man can’t change the world alone, but that doesn’t mean there’s no value in the trying. Reflecting on where the film has taken both men, this acknowledgement that, for now, there is no end makes McQueen’s cut-to-credits all the more reasonable. He’s asking us to share in the characters’ sense of a long, unseen road ahead.
I recently watched all 8 hours of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s made-for-TV ‘Family Series’ Eight Hours Don’t Make A Day. What I found was a looser iteration of a great director’s signature style. Now that we’re over the hump of the Small Axe series with two further films to go, it feels as though the legacy here might be similar for McQueen. An example of nimbler, predominantly working class storytelling that eschews the grandiose gestures sometimes found in his theatrical features but which is also, importantly, as vital a piece of the whole as anything else.