Small Axe – Red, White and Blue

Red, White and Blue, the third in director Steve McQueen’s movies in the Small Axe series that looks at the experience of Black people living in the UK, suffers from its positioning. The first and currently my favourite film was Mangrove which did what you’d expect it to do, telling the story of a key historical event in the struggle against racism and prejudice. The second, Lovers Rock, then did something totally unexpected in presenting a narratively light view of a single evening/early morning involving largely unnamed people enjoying themselves a party. Both were brilliant in very different ways, one conventionally and the other unconventionally. This one, probably the highest profile of the series of five because it stars that guy from the Star Wars films (although Mangrove had that lady from Black Panther), is another strong film but would have landed better in isolation. I’m afraid it looks mediocre by comparison. In fact, having got in this another period story of a man standing up against an oppressive society and fighting an unjust legal system, I appreciate Lovers Rock and it’s precise focus on a particular experience all the more for its bold individuality.

Taken on its own merits, Red, White and Blue is good. It tells the true story of second generation Jamaican Leroy Logan who joined the police after his father was unlawfully beaten by two on duty officers. The central performance from John Boyega is excellent and is miles from his work in a galaxy far, far away. There is actually a curious reference to Star Wars in the script here, that seems to pick up on both the drama on and off screen in that space trilogy. When he tells a friend that he is ‘joining the force’, he asks ‘what, are you becoming a Jedi?’ In this context it seems that the guy just can’t comprehend that he would mean the police but it also it seems to be picking up on the fact that Boyega’s character in the Skywalker Saga was set up as the hero only for Daisy Ridley’s Rey to end up being the chosen one. Boyega has gone public to say he believes he was marginalised in the subsequent movies, so no he didn’t become a Jedi. (On reflection I think I was so thrilled that it was the woman that became the celebrated protagonist I didn’t pick up on the fact that it wasn’t the black guy.) I’m not sure this is Boyega’s best performance, he was also excellent in Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit, but this time he is the lead and he more than carries the film.

There have clearly been movies about racist cops before. In the last three years alone we’ve had the aforementioned Detroit, BlacKkKlansman, Just Mercy, The Hate U Give, Queen & Slim, If Beale Street Could Talk and of course Mangrove. This is a topic that bears and needs revisiting and Red, White and Blue sits well alongside what has come before. I don’t think it as good as any of those other movies either though. It’s a strong field.

To some extent Red, White and Blue’s strength is also it’s weakness. The film doesn’t follow cliche or narrative conventions but in doing this it also fails to provide a satisfactory resolution. Unlike Lovers Rock, it starts to tell a definite story and in doing so, demands an ending. In fact Lovers Rock for all its avoidance of story and character development actually works its way through to a neat close. Red, White and Blue stops before it should. We follow Leroy through police training and expect him to meet prejudice here but he doesn’t. He does well but we expect his superiors to doubt or underestimate him yet they don’t. This all bucks a trend but when he goes on the beat, his intention being to challenge racism, he doesn’t manage it. By the end of the film he has met personal goals but actually achieved very little and the thing is that in truth Superintendent Logan achieved a great deal. As time went on he founded and chaired the Black Police Association, significantly changed policy and attitudes and was awarded an MBE. Again, I admire McQueen for not slapping this information onto the closing credits as one would assume he should but without it the film left a gap that Wikipedia had to fill.

Red, White and Blue is totally worth watching, certainly I’d not heard of Logan and now I am glad that I have. It just isn’t as good as it could have been and the previous brilliance of this series lead me to expect more.

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