Steve McQueen told a magnificent story at a Small Axe press conference for this year’s New York Film Festival. He recalled a trip on the underground in late-80s London, when a younger McQueen was working in the city. That day, he happened to sit across from Enoch Powell, the openly white-supremacist English politician whose 1968 “Rivers of Blood” speech targeted and terrified many non-white Britons, and energized too many white ones. Twenty years later, McQueen recounted, Powell looked frail, unkempt, decrepit. McQueen recognized him, but hardly anyone else on the train did, making it all the more fascinating when a large African woman with a small baby on her shoulder sat next to Powell. McQueen watched as the little Black baby stared at the old white man and reached its little hand out towards him. The mother, like any mother would, gently repositioned her baby and things carried on as normal, but the moment stuck with McQueen. In his words, that interaction proved to Powell, quite simply, that “he lost.”
The message McQueen derived from this encounter, and which each entry of his Small Axe series wears proudly upon its sleeve, is that despite the hate, the malfeasance, the astonishing bigotry and the cowardly terror which racists in Britain have directed towards West Indians and other Black citizens, these people are here to stay, and need not apologize for their presence or their joy. Of the three in this series exhibited at NYFF 2020, Lovers Rock and Mangrove have already stolen many hearts and minds with their style, wit, and energy, but Red, White and Blue may be the most restrained, the most direct, and consequently the most affecting of the group. It is yet another masterpiece from Mr. McQueen, and though his direction is sublime, it is the lead performance from John Boyega that defines the film.
This compact mini-biography follows the true story of Leroy Logan, a talented forensic scientist working with the Metropolitan Police in the 1980s. Logan is a confident, driven young man; athletic, intelligent, and personable. Good at his job but concerned he could be doing more, Logan takes interest in a new police initiative meant to diversify the force, which has been running ads explicitly asking Black men to sign up. Before he can decide, Logan’s father Kenneth Logan is brutally, unjustifiably attacked by two white police officers in broad daylight. While caring for his father, Logan decides there will never be trust between his community and the police, nor change in police behavior, unless someone Black gets involved who belongs to both sides. Logan joins the force, and quickly runs into overwhelming hostility and othering from all around. Some of his Black neighbors look sideways at him, and others laugh at the image of a Black man in such a uniform, but the worst comes from his white colleagues, whose reactions range from agnostic skepticism of the need for ‘diversity’ to outright, plain-as-day racism.
Boyega plays Logan as a deeply thoughtful figure, beset on all sides by challenges, confrontations, and compelling reasons to give up his controversial venture. Like he did with Shaun Parkes of Mangrove and a young Pacino, McQueen compares Boyega as a man and as an actor to a young Jack Nicholson, in that his energy and presence capture so much of what it means to be someone like him “today.” He’s spot-on; Boyega’s work on and off-screen in the past few years and few months have proven he is also a thoughtful, passionate, active figure in contemporary society, and his recent bravery when speaking openly and honestly to power only reconfirm what an excellent choice he is to play a real-life figure as important and effective as Logan. In a just world, Boyega’s performance will be hailed as a sign of a true rising talent.
Like many of McQueen’s works, of course, every actor onscreen has clearly been well-picked to create a lively ensemble. Antonia Thomas, recognizable from many lovely roles from the past decade, is confident and capable as Logan’s wife Gretl, while Tyrone Huntley buoyantly plays recording artist Leee John (of the band Imagination), one of Logan’s close friends. The real scene-stealer is Steve Toussaint, who embodies Kenneth Logan with an unforgettable gravity. From the very first scene to the last moment, his presence and anxieties inform Logan’s journey, pushing him to honor his father, avenge him, and eventually resist him. The central relationship between father and son takes on complicated, challenging layers as the film progresses, to the point that Red, White and Blue contains some of the most affecting ruminations on paternity and filial love to be seen this year.
These majestic performances are assisted by a captivating and concise script, penned by the director and Courttia Newland (co-writer on Lovers Rock as well). The personal dynamics between the Logan family are immaculately well-balanced against a palpable outrage when the film relays what Logan was put through at the hands of his supposed colleagues. Once again, Shabier Kirchner’s cinematography dazzles, particularly in moments of urban violence, shot with a stark realism reminiscent of the similarly-themed Serpico. One hauntingly familiar sequence directly recalls the climax of that film, as Logan calls for backup during a dangerous pursuit; like we did with Pacino’s Serpico, the viewer just knows there’s no help coming when the Boyega’s Logan asks for it. This time, however, the effect is compounded by the horrific realization that the man is being abandoned simply for daring to join up while Black. There are no bones about it: Logan has pushed himself into a daunting, perhaps impossible task – and there are no straightforward indications anywhere in the film that he should be optimistic about accomplishing it.
Script and visuals work perfectly in tandem to evoke this point; the police enter the film as nothing but predators, prowling the streets as if patrolling intrinsically hostile territory. During one neatly composed shot, in which Kenneth Logan stands in the foreground, calmly ordering some food, a police car creeps menacingly into the background over his left shoulder, a harbinger of unnecessarily violent confrontation on the horizon. Even in calmer, quieter scenes, Kirchner’s camera aids the film’s narration by imbuing a sense of dread over the proceedings. When Logan trains at police headquarters in Hendon, for example, there are no outright abuses to be found, but instead a feeling of impending exploitation, as if every pair of eyes on the premises is sizing up Logan, and plotting how his presence can be of use to them.
While Red, White and Blue is a compelling and impressive piece of cinema on its own merit, the film must be commended as an overdue acknowledgment of Logan’s identity and legacy. The film plays like an origin story for a real-life superhero, whose determination and exceptional resilience eventually made him a massively influential reformer for the Metropolitan Police (and a recipient of an MBE from the Queen at that). While much of Small Axe is dedicated to stories of community, Newland and McQueen’s script makes a compelling case for centering Logan’s ever-relevant story in a piece of its own. This is a film driven by hagiographic respect, filled with meaningful compositions, and steeped in a righteous passion to set the record straight.
However, the most powerful and humbling aspect of Red, White and Blue is its honest portrayal of how difficult it is, has been, and will be, to put anything in this twisted world right. There is a staggering profundity in the choice to slate Red, White and Blue last in the Small Axe series, because of this film’s final shot, which holds gigantic, humbling meaning within its still, silent frame. It is enough to make a viewer sit quietly for a few moments; enough to make you pause and think honestly about what our world means to you. I will not reveal the ending McQueen has chosen for this opus here, but suffice it to say, the choice makes clear that Small Axe will be a testament to this man’s genius for decades to come, and an incalculably important gift to the world in which we live.