One of the great joys of the New York Film Festival has been watching Steve McQueen’s new film anthology “Small Axe.” Composed of five works set between the late-’60s and early-’80s, the two recently screened films — “Lovers Rock” and “Mangrove” — are intimate slices of life of a little-represented community, British Black folks from the West Indies, resiliently thriving amidst a racially hostile environment. While “Lovers Rock” was a sumptuous love story set inside a house party, “Mangrove” depicted a Black community fighting in court against racist cops.
“Red, White and Blue” is the second film, “Mangrove” being the first, in the “Small Axe” series to critique policing. While the latter held zero grey area, with regards to the motivations behind the cops’ harassing Black restaurateur Frank Crichlow, the former takes us within the belly of the beast, so to speak, by portraying Leroy Logan (John Boyega). A forensic scientist, Logan decides to join the police force only to incur the disappointment of his family and friends. McQueen’s narrative, based on a true story and co-written by Courttia Newland, illuminates the systematic rot in policing yet fashions Logan as a notable exception. In this sense, “Red, White and Blue” is the trickiest film of the series so far. And is a reminder that McQueen is unafraid.
“Red, White and Blue” takes place during the early-80s. Mirroring the title, and in an effort to show the varying sides of Logan, the story’s three narratives combine into a tryptic. The tiniest features Logan and his girlfriend Gretl (Antonia Thomas), living with his father Kenneth (Steven Toussaint), as they prepare for the arrival of their child. The uneasy relationship between father and son signifies the second, and maybe the most important arc. Strong-willed and defiant, one afternoon, not only do constables harass Kenneth over a nonexistent traffic violation, but they brutally assault him too.
Even with this event in mind — because he believes changing the system starts from within — Logan switches career paths from forensics to policing. The decision causes a rift between a disappointed father and an independent son. In their brief stints together, both Boyega and Toussaint channel a challenging chemistry. Toussaint especially, through his impenetrable glares, fills the frame with hurt and anger. Rightfully, Kenneth views Leroy’s new course as a betrayal. This slow-burn character study feeds off that tension, especially as Kenneth battles to take the officers who assaulted him to court. And much like Crichlow in “Mangrove,” within the father, McQueen communicates an exasperation, a weariness, felt by older first-generation immigrants, those most afflicted, and left jaded, by their hostile new homeland.
Logan comes to experience a similar dissatisfaction. Though he hopes to veer the police force into community outreach, during his training, such aspirations are quickly dashed. McQueen highlights a fatal error in police training: They’re instructed to anticipate savagery. Because in their vernacular neighborhoods are jungles, and their inhabitants are beasts. Rather than learning how to defuse violent cases, the academy teaches suppression. For a training exercise, while dressed in riot gear, the new recruits raid a building. A man swinging a mallet whacks their plexiglass shields. How often will they encounter such violent offenders? Rarely.
Though Logan harps on the similarities between white cops and minority citizens, in one scene he tries to bond with a white recruit over their love of Marvin Gaye, he can’t shake the untruthfulness of such beliefs. Instead, he and others endure racism and microaggressions from within. When his fellow officer (Assad Zaman) speaks Urdu to Pakistani shop owners who have been vandalized, a white cop orders him to speak English. Logan himself undergoes taunts and is also passed over for promotion.
Worst yet, he experiences just as much pushback from friends. Close mates with Leee John (Tyrone Huntley), the lead singer of the soul band Imagination, when he informs the singer of his decision to join the force, Leee disgustingly says, “I thought you were cool.” The decision by cinematographer Shabier Kirchner to shoot on 35mm, while utilizing a tighter aspect ratio, only adds greater weight to the moral ambiguity plaguing the constable. “Red, White And Blue,” as opposed to “Lovers Rock” and “Mangrove” is ironically a drearier, more muted film, with regards to color. Even so, Boyega is superhuman here. Because no matter the decade, Logan isn’t an easy character to understand with regards to decision making. Yet Boyega’s sincerity holds us in this story, even when we can’t fully understand the why behind Logan. How does one join the very people who almost killed their father?
McQueen provides no easy answers, or more accurately the clear-eyed repudiation of policing the audience might crave. Logan never gives up his beliefs that he can change the system from within. Nor does he give way to catharsis. In this sense, “Red, White and Blue” is the most subdued of the three films. It’s the bitter, slow realization by Logan of his solitude in this institution. Though he might come to acknowledge the scope and design of the pernicious system he’s aligned himself with, after a summer witnessing protests against such institutions, is an acknowledgment enough? In Logan’s story, McQueen knowingly offers complexity. But in the tight spaces between endorsement and representation, lurks unforeseen complications.
Are there good cops or all police, whether they know it or not, systematically guided by prejudice? McQueen certainly flags Logan as one of the good ones by the very presence of the constable struggling with said question. By placing Logan upon a pedestal, even a shaky one, isn’t McQueen logically arguing, even if tacitly, the possibility for reform within law enforcement? I think the director manages to walk between the bushes, yet is scratched by their thorns. Consider that in Logan’s later life, left unshown in the compact eighty minutes of “Red, White, And Blue,” he served a long and distinguished career as a cop. Yet even today, he maintains the opinion of the police force as inherently racist. McQueen arrives at a similar conclusion, but it’s subtle, and could be misconstrued even under a microscope.
For Boyega, Logan continues his propensity to play law enforcement officials: Kathryn Bigelow’s “Detroit” and Finn in the “Star Wars” universe — storm troopers are essentially the cops of the galaxy — being the other examples. That tendency runs in sharp contrast to his face as a Black Lives Matter activist. Obviously, the actor filmed “Red, White and Blue” before the racial upheaval of this summer, but in viewing his new work in the present atmosphere, a question arises: How can one rail against law enforcement and institutional-inspired violence, yet offer a humanized portrayal of those acting in concert with those systems? In this role, Boyega fascinatingly mirrors his subject. By playing this tangled character, he unconsciously hopes to change a system by portraying its most enigmatic figure. Whether such unmeant aspirations cause more harm than good is a quandary McQueen and Boyega must grapple with in the same manner as Logan. Neither may like the answer, but the question requires much courage to raise.
Unlike the joyful “Lovers Rock” and the defiant “Mangrove,” “Red, White and Blue” is a difficult film to wrap your arms around. It’s few ebullient moments — Logan caring for the pregnant Gretl, or playing scrabble with his dad, or dancing with Leee to Beggar and Co, arrive in flashes. It’s always confounding, and often infuriating, especially when thinking upon what hasn’t changed since the 80s. Considering its place as the concluding film in the anthology, the final note it strikes is quiet. We’ll have to watch the other two entries: “Education” and “Alex Wheatle” — to really get a sense for what tone McQueen is hoping to set here, but considering the vibrancy of “Lovers Rock” and “Mangrove,” “Red, White, And Blue” is the very complicated shade of grey in this colorful series. [B+]