Mangrove, the first installment in Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology, is all about the fight against the system, the battle for what’s right and what’s just. Red, White and Blue, the third of the five films, is in many ways about that same fight — but instead of waging a war from the outside (or inside of a courtroom), the protagonist sets his sights on the potential for change within the system. It’s an uphill climb that’s just as steep (arguably steeper in many respects), but one Red, White and Blue posits might be worth taking — though that claim is presented as far from definitive.
The film tells the story of Leroy Logan, a former superintendent of the London Metropolitan Police and founder of the Black Police Association. Or, I should say, it tells a portion of his story: at a scant 80 minutes, Red, White and Blue covers brief sections of Logan’s early life but hones in on his early days as a member of the Metropolitan Police, leaving his later accomplishments for a future storyteller. This feels intentional on the part of McQueen and co-writer Courttia Newland. It would be easy to turn Logan’s life into standard biopic fare, ending with his elevation to a leadership position and the founding of the BPA, but McQueen and Newland understand that particular arc — especially a Hollywood-ized version — doesn’t quite gel with today’s reality. The work Logan engaged in may have a beginning and middle, but looking at the landscape of society it’s clear the end has yet to be reached.
So, instead, the film seeks to underscore Logan’s perseverance in the face of adversity from all sides. As you might expect, he’s met with constant, racist resistance from within the force. Less anticipated — but all too understandable — is the reaction from his father, a victim of police brutality who simply can’t comprehend why his son would choose to go down a road that he’s only seen end badly. It’s this relationship in particular that gives Red, White and Blue its emotional heft: how do you gather the strength to change things from the inside if you can’t even fall back on your family for support?
As with all of the Small Axe films, Red, White and Blue highlights McQueen’s directorial eye, and the nature of the story gives him more opportunities to utilize his skill with muscular action that he showed off in Widows. But the film ultimately belongs to John Boyega, who gives a stunningly nuanced performance as a man willing to sacrifice for what he believes in while simultaneously knowing that for those closest to him his sacrifice may not be seen as such. Boyega has shown the ability to be a standout in blockbuster ensemble fare like Star Wars, but here makes it abundantly clear that he can and will excel with a meatier role — the sort he should be afforded as frequently as he wants going forward. Though the film’s brevity makes sense in context, perhaps the biggest knock against Red, White and Blue is that the length deprives us of more of Boyega’s Logan. If the rest of that story is one day told, we can only hope it’s handled with the same amount of respect and skill on display here.