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Small Axe: Red, White and Blue Review

Director Steve McQueen’s Red, White and Blue — part of his Small Axe anthology for Amazon and BBC — is a potent film that occupies a unique space in the cultural conversation. The Small Axe anthology focuses on London’s West Indian community from the ’60s through the ’80s; four of its five films are based on true stories of racial injustice, which is no doubt timely (the fifth, Lovers Rock, is an entrancing party piece with similar themes). However, this particular entry can’t help but also feel like a dialogue between lead actor John Boyega and the audience, about his image in the public sphere and in a galaxy far, far away.Boyega plays Leroy Logan, a real-life forensic scientist who joined London’s largely white Metropolitan Police in 1983. Around the same time, Leroy’s father Kenneth (Steve Toussaint), a Caribbean immigrant, had been violently assaulted by officers of the very same outfit. Over the course of less than 90 minutes, the film immerses us within the dual tensions traversed by Leroy, both as an outsider hoping to change a rancid system, and as a man whose commitments to community and family are challenged by his pursuit.

The predatory relationship between policing and West Indian immigrants is writ large in Mangrove, another Small Axe film from McQueen about a real-life ’60s court case. Red, White and Blue begins in the ’60s as well, with a scene of Leroy’s childhood, and a display of how even a prim-and-proper Black Londoner in a school uniform might be targeted by police. Thankfully, the stern, imposing Kenneth is around to intervene. Flash-forward a few decades, and Leroy — a now beefed-up Boyega — is newly married, and successful in the field of forensics. Everything seems rosy on the surface, but Kenneth doesn’t yet know about Leroy’s change in profession.

Despite being the ostensible head of the family, Kenneth feels out of place. Toussaint plays him as a man uncomfortable in his own body, and like someone averse to change. He barely speaks about his queer nephew, and when Leroy’s wife Gretl (Antonia Thomas) plays the word “Sex” during family Scrabble, he’s willing to throw the game rather than continue playing. He’s a man trapped in amber, a feeling that only worsens when Leroy’s new job is sprung on him while he’s still recovering from his injuries.

Hardened by years of persecution, Kenneth has a contentious relationship to law enforcement, and feels understandably betrayed by Leroy’s career choice. But despite the abuse hurled at him by those in uniform, Kenneth still harbours an intrinsic belief in the systems of justice represented by the Union Jack — the red, white and blue. Leroy has a similar belief in justice, though his path to progress is wildly different from his father’s. Kenneth simply wants his day in court, and the opportunity to prove his innocence (and the cops’ wrongdoing), a right afforded to him by law. Leroy, meanwhile, wants to force change from within, though he stands the risk of becoming part of the problem.Like Boyega, the son of Nigerian immigrants, Leroy was born and raised in Britain. He has a more personable relationship to policing than his father — he has a white friend who works as a beat cop and a police liaison aunt — and to British-ness, as a man with “proper” English schooling and an unmistakable English accent. Although, despite this cultural assimilation, his plan for reform still proves an uphill battle. His badge and dress blues are no shield for the aggression of his fellow officers, and the system that protects them.

On its surface, the film bears a similarity to Hollywood’s recent flood of Black cops in popular culture (Watchmen, 21 Bridges, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and so on). Many of these characters were written in the wake of Black Lives Matter, in order to spotlight a supposed contradiction — a war of allegiances — but few of these stories explore the real complications of centering Blackness as a systemic fix to policing. Notably, in Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit, Boyega plays a uniformed security guard who, despite helping the police, ends up being targeted by them. The film’s dramatic framing, however, is more about the violence of individual bad actors than the structures permitting them to be violent.

Red, White and Blue is by no means an antidote to this overarching trend. It only covers the first year of Leroy’s three decades on the force, but it’s a much more nuanced look at why diversity is offered as a solution to policing, and why it’s a cosmetic fix at best. Leroy’s personable etiquette while patrolling his old neighborhood is a Band-Aid on a broken arm. Local teens, with little by way of opportunity, whisper taunts of “oreo” and “coconut” — brown on the outside, white within — since he’s now part of a white supremacist system that still assaults them with impunity.

On one hand, the film portrays existing injustices overtly and unsubtly. It’s hard to misread what McQueen and Lovers Rock co-writer Courttia Newland are putting down when Black civilians are brutalized on-screen, when Leroy’s Asian coworker Asif (Assad Zaman) is reprimanded for interviewing hate crime victims in their native Urdu rather than English, and when Leroy becomes the target of racial abuse at his local station, despite being featured in ads for diverse hiring. On the other hand, the way Leroy becomes part of the problem — despite constant efforts to build community bridges and combat workplace harassment — is a more subtle, more poetic exploration.

Small Axe: Red, White and Blue

A key action scene in the second half explores Leroy’s duality: he’s forced to track down an alleged criminal while his white peers refuse to provide backup. As the only Black officer on the force, and a man vocally committed to change, he’s ruffled more than a few feathers. However, this is a moment where, despite facing discrimination, he also becomes a fixture of the system. As he chases the suspect through a factory, the film refuses to cut away from him; Shabier Kirchner’s kinetic camera navigates industrial engines as Leroy weaves behind pillars of equipment, subsumed by a deafening mechanical cacophony. Slowly, but surely, he becomes a part of the enormous policing machine, ready to strike with his baton.

Sound is a key facet of the film, harkening Leroy’s immersion into the culture of law enforcement. His training scenes are scored by discomforting beeps during running drills and screeching sirens during makeshift raids. It feels like a plummet into chaos. The only reprieves are scenes of calm domestic gatherings, but even here, the tension between Leroy and Kenneth simmers on full display, as each man is photographed in isolation.

Both father and son are in search of the same thing: justice. Their paths diverge, but they’re bound by visual motifs that capture their split consciousness as immigrant and first-gen Londoners straddling dueling identities. When their faith is most shaken, the film cuts from Leroy reflected in the rough surface of his locker (his image is splintered) to Kenneth reflected in a mirror, exhausted by the run-around of a system working to make him feel small. Although, the film is also peppered with vital character beats where the two men begin to understand each other. In these scenes, they finally share the frame for brief moments; the result is moving, even if they’re at a stalemate when it comes to progress.

Boyega and Toussaint’s performances anchor the story. Kenneth’s rage has a melancholy undercurrent — the kind shared by Shaun Parkes’ Frank Crichlow in fellow Small Axe entry Mangrove — and his eyes feel sunken and desperate, even in explosive moments. Boyega walks a similarly delicate line, balancing anguish and restraint as his superiors continue to move the goalposts around him. His Blackness is an asset when it helps them maintain a veneer of civility, but it’s a liability as soon as they feel challenged.

The irony of these parameters is that they’re set by the very red, white, and blue that’s meant to be aspirational to the characters. The British flag is as much a representation of justice to them as it is a symbol of colonial oppression; the film opens in the 1960s, when several West Indian countries had just gained independence from the Crown, while others were still years away. This spectre is ever-present across the series, which deals with the question of what home and community even mean for a diaspora living in the shadow of colonial oppression brought home.Boyega has been part of this conversation throughout his career. His debut, rough-and-tumble sci-fi romp Attack the Block (2011), re-centered the expected background and moral boundaries of Amblin-era family adventure by swapping white suburban settings for a multi-racial housing project; it ends with Boyega’s character being arrested despite having saved the day. His most prominent role, as Finn in Disney’s Star Wars sequel trilogy, evokes the specter of real-world racial revolution against oppressors; race doesn’t exist the same way in Star Wars, but the final film in the Skywalker Saga sees both Finn and fellow Black Stormtrooper Jannah (Naomi Ackie) fight back against the First Order, who enslaved and brainwashed them as children. However, rather than fighting to liberate the Stormtroopers still in bondage, the way Finn had been freed by the Force, he ends up slaughtering them.

Boyega has already expressed his disappointment with the series’ treatment of non-white characters and has since signed a Netflix deal to produce several films based in Africa. When Boyega gave an impassioned speech at a Black Lives Matter rally this year, he feared his career might be impacted by speaking out against racial injustice. The Small Axe series now enters a world where Boyega is a political lightning rod for issues of race in cinema, having forced the conversations on representation and police violence to overlap.

With Red, White and Blue, Boyega blends the two conversations further, portraying a character who believes that fixing optics and day-to-day decorum will eventually solve issues at the top. The film isn’t shy about Boyega’s place in the popular consciousness; the dialogue even invokes it with era-appropriate references to the original Star Wars Trilogy. For Boyega, who’s spent several years playing a man battling a violent system he belonged to, McQueen’s film feels like part of that same continuum — only Red, White and Blue has a more incisive approach to what liberation from violence actually looks like.

It also feels like McQueen is the director Boyega has been waiting for. His public image (both as Finn and as a celebrity) is one of boisterous charm, but McQueen lingers on him until he breaks. The camera investigates his uncertainties, as a man who puts on a bold and confident front in his pursuit of racial equality. It’s Boyega’s finest work to date, bolstered by a moving scene where he sits and stares at his hanging uniform in silence, his eyes welling up in self-doubt. Plenty of western films capture the violence of racism, but few are as adept at capturing its psychological toll.

Red, White and Blue has no delusions about Leroy instantly fixing the Metropolitan Police. In his 2020 autobiography Closing Ranks, the real Leroy Logan even writes: “The Met is still institutionally racist.” And so, any Hollywood-esque optimism about lasting change on the horizon would’ve felt out of place — had the film chosen to go that route. Instead, it narrows its focus to Leroy’s waning determination, how he regains it, and how he and his father begin to mend their relationship as a stepping stone to building a better world. The historical struggles in Small Axe are far from over, but the skill with which McQueen captures the bruises, the heartache, and even the communal joys of revolution bring these struggles deftly into the present.

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https://www.ign.com/articles/small-axe-red-white-and-blue-review

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