It’s hard to imagine a year like 2020—one that has been significantly punctuated with images of deadly police brutality and brazen racial injustice—having enough space for a story about Leroy Logan, a former superintendent in the London Metropolitan Police. What’s more, committing to watching such a story unfold in these times, especially as a Black viewer, can register as a Herculean feat: It’s much too difficult to reconcile empathetic images of try-hard, benevolent cops with the mounds of real-life footage ripped from dashcams, bodycams, and civilians’ smartphones that point to an intentionally broken justice system, even for a true-life story as tangentially relatable as Logan’s.
Any marginalized person who has dreamed of thriving in an inherently inequitable space has entertained the idea of becoming a catalyst for serious change “from the inside,” of gaining enough access to correct broken systems and cultivate a space where anyone can thrive. For Logan, having firsthand experience with biased police only bolstered his desire to leave his cushy job in forensic science to enter the force with hopes of changing policies—and maybe some hearts—that ultimately endanger Britain’s Black citizens. He would go on to endure even more heinous racism in uniform from the colleagues that were sworn to protect him until he eventually helped form the Black Police Association. In the hands of certain directors, Logan’s story would be ripe for the kind of empty inspiration porn that mostly serves to coddle white audiences and net Oscars. In short, it would have been the kind of film that nobody actually needed, especially today.
But the third installment of Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology, Red, White And Blue, doesn’t contain moments intended to inspire the audience like its leading chapter, Mangrove. It doesn’t tell an overly indulgent tale of a well-meaning cop overcoming adversity to eventually appeal to the hearts of his misguided brethren in blue at his own expense. In fact, the story ends rather abruptly, before Leroy is ever able to incite actual reform. There is no rousing courtroom speech or galvanizing precinct rant (though there is much righteous rage when Leroy’s coworkers prove time and time again that they, in fact, won’t protect him). For 80 minutes, the audience witnesses the protagonist suffer injustice after injustice while his white bullies continue to ascend, unchecked. And while that doesn’t make for a chapter as enthralling as Mangrove, Red, White And Blue does paint a necessarily grim picture of what it means to compromise with a deeply, dangerously flawed system that harbors no desire to be rectified. If the film accomplishes nothing else (string of resplendent performances aside), it painstakingly decimates the widely spread bootstraps myth that equality can be achieved through hard work alone—a lesson that McQueen ostensibly understands is essential.
We first meet Leroy in the 1970s when he is of school age, dressed rather smartly in his school uniform as he waits to be picked up. He is approached by two white officers who, ignoring all context clues, begin to question and search him over a supposed robbery. Leroy is rescued by his father Kenneth (played by the magnetic Steve Toussaint), who stands up firmly to the officers to extract his son from the unnecessary search. Their car ride home consists of Kenneth giving a version of the talk regarding authority that many Black children have listened to with the same wide-eyed naivete as young Leroy—the earliest indication that the police officers we learned about in elementary school may not operate with total benevolence, depending on the color of your skin. Leroy and Kenneth are quickly established as gently opposing forces on the issue (that is, “gently” in the sense that their clashing moments on the issue are tempered with clear moments of love), Leroy’s innocent school uniform a stark contrast to Kenneth’s all-Black ensemble and modest afro. Even Leroy’s insistence on playing sunnier music on the car radio establishes a sense of distance between father and son that permeates throughout the rather bleak story.
Boyega synthesizes the heartbreak of watching a certain hope slowly erode through an infectious buoyancy that ebbs with each toxic professional encounter. As the sole Black recruit and one of two men of color on the force, Boyega taps into the inherent loneliness of his mission to “be a bridge,” as he later tells his Asian colleague, Asif Kamali (Assad Zaman). McQueen aides this feeling with a number of clever shots that emphasize Leroy’s solitude—for instance, a camera fixed in the corner of a near-empty lab while he works, or a shot leveled at his fidgeting hands juxtaposed to the same view of the interviewing police committee’s steady hands as they consider him for a position.
As we’ve come to expect from McQueen’s work, some of the most resonant moments come from unassuming camera angles that reveal more than words could, like when Leroy discovers that his work locker has been defaced with graffiti that reads “DIRTY [N-word].” Forgoing superfluous drama, McQueen chooses instead to focus on Leroy’s changing profile, which moves from shock to building rage, and then something indicative of the weighty reality of having to soldier on after experiencing something so violent. Rather than pan directly to the vandalism, the camera remains on Boyega’s profile as he eventually opens his locker, where the reprehensible violation is finally in view alongside his steely resolve. Once the viewer’s shock dissipates, it becomes apparent that this is what it means to be a person of color navigating the world: having to work through the hateful vitriol that they endure daily.
While Red, White And Blue sails with many moments like this, it doesn’t include much in the way of a rousing culmination of events like Mangrove does, and it shouldn’t. It’s more of a slice-of-life tale comprising many instances that speak to a greater truth about the pervasive racism within law enforcement. Because of this, it’s easy for sections of the story to mellow to the point of becoming somewhat forgettable. In a way, it’s also effective: If Mangrove is meant to herald the hope and resilience of Caribbean-British people in the 1970s, Red, White And Blue is the rather sobering ’80s follow-up, a confirmation that the historic Mangrove 9 case was one victory among Black Britain’s many battles against systemic racism. This installment leaves behind no optimism or solutions, only the point that engrained racial injustice cannot be solved through hope alone.