Red, White and Blue
Time Out says
John Boyega dazzles in Steve McQueen’s true-life tour de force about dads, sons and the Black experience in ’80s Britain
This poignant, pointed entry in British filmmaker Steve McQueen’s five-film Small Axe anthology – which is shaping up to be a major landmark in British cinema – draws from the real-life experience of Leroy Logan (John Boyega), a Londoner from a West Indian family who joined the city’s police force in the early 1980s and spent 30 years on the job. McQueen and co-writer Courttia Newland leave the full sweep of Logan’s three-decade career to the history books – including him rising to the rank of superintendent and being awarded an MBE in 2001. Instead, they stick to just a few years in the early 1980s and explore the courage, pain and loneliness that accompanied Logan’s choice to become a policeman, as well as the struggle of his early days on the beat.
The racism that Logan meets – of peers and superiors; both tacit and explicit – is so inevitable that you’re surprised at the moments it feels absent. (When it’s clear, it stings: McQueen handles a locker-room confrontation between Logan and his new colleagues with supreme visual intelligence.) Less preordained is the father-son relationship at the core of the film: we first meet a young, pre-teen Leroy (Nathan Vidal) being picked up by his dad, Kenneth (Steve Toussaint), at the school gates just after two policemen have, absurdly, stopped and searched him; later in the film there’s a reflective conversation between the two at the dad’s kitchen table, about the speed of progress, with Leroy now an adult and a father himself.
The relationship between generations – defined by encouragement, or frustration, or fear – is the film’s big subject. It’s a story about inheritance; about lessons learned and missed; about trying to change things. Just as Leroy is going through his police training, his dad is assaulted by two policemen, prompting a legal case: father and son are both challenging the boundaries of the establishment, but largely keeping their challenges to themselves, internalising them. Their loneliness and determination run in parallel, and when they meet, we have the film’s most moving moments, not least when the father agrees to drop his son off at police training college in Hendon. We watch from inside the car as they embrace, with Al Green’s How Can You Mend a Broken Heart? on the soundtrack. It’s a killer moment.
Much of the mood of Red, White and Blue mirrors the dogged pragmatism and determination of Logan himself. It has a no-nonsense briskness that’s sweetened with moments of humour and compassion. At times it recalls a film by the brilliant Belgian Dardenne brothers (The Child, The Kid with a Bike): a very personal story that has the pared-down feel of a parable. Boyega – swapping a lightsaber for a police issue flashlight – gives the best performance of his career so far, exuding smarts and understanding. It’s a film about struggle, but it’s also a film about love and support and community. Logan might feel lonely as a pioneer – a breaker of extremely tough ground – but after tender scenes with his wife, his father, old family friends, even a youth-club worker who remembers him fondly as a kid, we know for sure that he’s in no way alone.
Red, White and Blue airs in the UK in Nov as part of the BBC’s Small Axe anthology.
Cast and crew