Red, White and Blue, the third and final installment of Steve McQueen’s Small Axe quintet of films about racial issues specific to Great Britain being world premiered at the New York Film Festival, zeroes in on the ordeal of a young black Londoner set on helping to definitively break the color barrier at London’s Metropolitan Police Force in the early 1980s. (The first black officer on the force was Norwell Roberts, in 1967.) Meeting with great resistance both from the vast majority of white Bobbies and his own hard-headed father, Leroy Logan had a very hard time of it, which makes for a compelling story of admirable perseverance, even if it ends up being a rather predictable one.
All three of the entries shown thus far are engaging in their own ways and, best of all, open a window upon characters and ways of life almost entirely ignored in mainstream media; the occasional black character turned up in New British Cinema features of the early 1960s, notably the young lad who got Rita Tushingham pregnant in A Taste of Honey, but in general they were very seldom seen.
Film Review: Steve McQueen’s ‘Small Axe’ Opener ‘Mangrove’
McQueen sets his sights in Small Axe on making a dent in this imbalance with five unrelated stories that, together, create the beginnings of a portrait of a hitherto mostly invisible population. As a mosaic, the films are notable in the way each one zeroes in on a relevant cultural scene from the late 1960s through the early 1980s and creates a vibrant sense of the moment.
At the same time, however, a certain limitation begins to become apparent, in that each individual entry is very much about one thing and one thing only. The hour-long Lovers Rock almost exclusively focuses upon dancing and the beginnings of a romance at a neighborhood house party, while the feature-length Mangrove zeroes in on police harassment of a popular Caribbean restaurant in Notting Hill that culminates in a big-deal trial at the Old Bailey.
For its part, Red, White and Blue intently examines the perseverance of Leroy Logan (John Boyega, of Star Wars: The Force Awakens), a very correct young man who, fed up with his relatively solitary work as a forensic scientist at the Royal Free Hospital, applies to become a policeman. This is a bold move on the face of it; the force is full of lower-class racists who automatically call Jamaican-bred guys like Leroy “cocoanuts”—brown on the outside, white on the inside—and never miss a chance to give the tough, earnest fellow a hard time.
But more than doubling Leroy’s difficulties is his father (Steve Toussaint), whose habitual foul mood is doubled by the prospect of his son going to work with all the racists on the force, and doubled again when some cops beat him up over absolutely nothing. Dad takes his terrible, if justified, anger out indiscriminately on anyone in his vicinity, and this lack of modulation (which resembles the characterization of the victimized restauranteur in Mangrove) gives the character a quality that narrows the performance and the film. (By contrast, in an in-joke that will be lost on no one, a little kid excitedly asks of Leroy, “You gonna be a Jedi or something?”).
Fortunately, this is not a case of like father, like son, as Leroy masterfully controls his temper and dedicates himself to the long game. It helps that the young man is a fitness fanatic, and that his girlfriend/wife-to-be Gretl (Antonia Thomas) is so understanding. And there’s the occasional enlightened white police colleague, including one who privately tells him, “You’re a stand-up bloke.”
As passionately felt and articulated as it is, the script by McQueen and novelist/playwright Courttia Newland is nonetheless dominated by expository material and the characters remain pretty fixed, defined more by their dramatic functions than by emerging at three-dimensional men and women.
The film bluntly lays out the sort of unashamedly racist attitudes that were embedded in the almost strictly white, lower-class-bred police force of the era; it’s made clear that the vast majority of the police at the time wanted nothing but for Leroy to be gone. Just as plainly, the script bracingly puts on exhibit the strength of character, will and perseverance it took for Leroy Logan to prevail and lead the way for others. “I joined the police force to make change,” he tells his wife. And that’s the kind of person that’s also effective as the subject of a movie.