NYFF: The latest entry from Steve McQueen's "Small Ax" anthology shows that Boyega is trying to overcome institutional racism by joining the system.
While Steve McQueen's five-film anthology "Small Ax" presents a collage of complementary stories from the West Indian community of London, "Red, White and Blue" plays like a breaking point. The two parts of the festival "Mangrove" and "Lovers Rock" show a self-sufficient community that deals with the existential threat posed by institutional racism, but the protagonist of "Red, White and Blue" wants to improve the system by joining him.
Needless to say, this is no easy task for Leroy Logan (John Boyega), who doesn't find a welcoming crowd when he becomes the only black officer in the Metropolitan Police Force around 1983 and "red, white and blue" finds him in constant contradiction to his idealism. McQueen's gripping real-life drama compensates for some of its heavier beats thanks to Boyega's breathtaking, career-best performance and the fiery tone that surrounds it every step of the way. The film is both a cruel indictment and a call to action that epitomizes Logan's cause, even if it's doomed from the start.
"Red, White and Blue" was co-written by the British-Caribbean playwright Courttia Newland (who also wrote "Lovers Rock" with McQueen) and combines its central drama with a fascinating tension between the generations. Logan's father, Ken (Steve Toussaint), hates the xenophobic white men in uniform who harass his people on a regular basis (understandably, given that he was living on the same timeline as the downtrodden activists of "Mangrove"). Leroy grows up with these frustrations and decides to take a different course. In a tight prologue from his childhood, Leroy is harassed by some white officers outside of his private school just so his father can intervene at a crucial moment. His lesson to his son is blunt: "Don't be a predator and don't bring the police into my garden." Instead, years later, Leroy decides to become one.
When the police come to Ken's farm years later, they are looking for their new colleague. Stuck in forensics at first, Leroy responds to his father's recent skirmish with the cops by signing up for a rigorous training process. With Ken being beaten over a parking ticket by the same officials his son plans to work with, Leroy's activism seems to be falling short – but as Boyega's stern gaze often makes clear, he's absorbed his father's resilience by turning him into an unbridled fighting spirit has transformed. McQueen stepped up to deliver exciting, annoying action scenes in "Widows," and some of that visceral energy reappears in the brutal training Leroy undergoes on his way through the ranks. There he is faced with the psychological war of his new white colleagues, whose disturbing locker room looks finally give way to more open racist aggression.
In 78 minutes, "Red, White, and Blue" wastes little energy solving Leroy's riddles, though his developing family life and relationship with the neighborhood characters he has known all his life make it clear how much he has brings on the line. Compared to the fascinating party scenes of "Lovers Rock" or the lengthy showdowns in the courtroom of "Mangrove", this episode follows a lighter narrative: As soon as Logan joins the troupe 30 minutes later, there are few surprises. Still, McQueen and cinematographer Shabier Kirchner continue to work wonders with colorful details from the time and moving camera work (including a chase through a paper mill in one gripping long shot) that continuously enrich the complex backdrop.
Once again, the process was run through with a soundtrack appropriate for the killer period, but in this case it goes beyond the reggae melodies of the other stories and favors more popular hits like "Uptown Girl" as if it reflected Leroy's efforts to step beyond its island roots .
It's not an easy transition. "Sometimes in life it's better to just fit in," says a manager. The only like-minded colleague Leroy finds is a disgruntled Pakistani recruit who lacks Leroy's belief that he can "change the system". Boyega has played this kind of determined man in uniform before in Kathryn Bigelow's harrowing drama "Detroit" from 2017, but "Red, White and Blue" works better on the same intense wavelength as his performance. It feels like all the nifty levels the actor had to suppress for three "Star Wars" unleashed at the same time. McQueen even dares to wink at those credits when Leroy tells a friend he's joining the troop. "Are you going to be a Jedi or something?" he said it. ("Return of the Jedi" would have been outside at the time.) While Boyega had enough hokey charm to wear his own in these films, he is clearly more in his element than morally conflicted men advocating the common good, and manages to root this journey in pure credibility.
In fact, it's so good that the performance often surpasses the script, which more than once falls into hyperbolic screams and dialogues that fall back on didactic inferences. ("Somebody has to be the bridge", "Somebody has to conquer the world" etc.) In this limited framework, however, McQueen develops a fascinating atmosphere, marked by the uncertainty Leroy finds at every stage of his journey, and does not try to gloss over the impact of those efforts.
Unlike "Mangrove," McQueen doesn't end "Red, White, and Blue" with an explanatory card about what happened next, but it's worth noting that the real Leroy Logan founded the Black Police Association and an organization for at-. risk youth and write a treatise. To that end, to reach out to the audience, the latest "Small Ax" entry acts as a major origin story, defined by the sense of vanity towards Leroy's mission and which compels him to move on anyway. With the sharpness of its climatic toast, "Red, White and Blue" suggests that no one can permanently repair a system that was designed to break, but it's still worth it.
Grade: B +
"Red, White and Blue" premiered on the main panel at the 2020 New York Film Festival. It will be streamed on Friday, November 20, as part of the Small Ax anthology on Amazon.