This summer’s Black Lives Matter movement intensified calls to defund the police — and also raised questions about whether good cops can even make a difference within a systemically racist organization. I have a lot of respect for what law enforcement has to contend with, but I also think it’s fairly obvious that there’s so much institutional rot that the bad can outweigh the well-meaning. When I watch a documentary like The Force, about Oakland’s troubled police force, I see how noble intentions are undermined by corruption and self-interest. No doubt there are good men and women trying to change the system from within. Unfortunately, from the outside, it looks like they’re terribly outnumbered.
Red, White and Blue, the third installment of Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology, which studies racism in London from the 1960s to the 1980s, tells a true story that is little known in the States. In 1983, Leroy Logan stepped away from a promising career as a scientist to join the London police force. His reason: His father had been beaten by some white cops, and Logan decided he had to do something to battle this bigotry. Helping to found the Black Police Association, and a former superintendent of the Metropolitan Police, Logan is the kind of unsung hero that policing needs if it’s ever going to change. Not that it was easy for Logan. “I thought, ‘No way am I going to leave the world of science and go against my father,’ but the calling kept nagging at me,” he recently told the BBC, later adding that he “question[ed] my sanity for about 10 years” after signing up for the force. “Why have I left the comfortable world of science in a great hospital, the Royal Free, to go and work in a very militaristic type of culture, which had the casual racism and you know quite a hostile environment for a Black person?”
For those like me who didn’t know Logan’s story, Red, White and Blue will be a gripping introduction to his early days as a policeman. Chronicling his decision to join the force, and the battles he faced from his white colleagues and his disapproving father, the film illustrates just how thankless and challenging such a principled career change must have been. In the process, Red, White and Blue also provides John Boyega with his best role to date. There’s a bitter irony to that fact, though. After years of wasting his time in the recent Star Wars trilogy — in which he says he endured his own form of racism — it’s gratifying to see Boyega demonstrate how good he can be in a film that tackles bigotry head-on.
Boyega plays Logan as a confident, dashing young man. He’s grown up in a loving family led by his dad Kenneth (Steve Toussaint), who has raised his children to be distrustful of the racist white police force. His parents Jamaican immigrants, Logan (like the characters in the previous Small Axe installments Mangrove and Lovers Rock) is of West Indian descent and begrudgingly accepts that he’ll probably never feel fully comfortable in London. He’s a bright guy, landing an impressive job at a lab as a research scientist, but although Kenneth is awfully proud of his boy, Logan feels like he wants to do more than be confined to a desk. Maybe he was meant for something greater.
A cop friend suggests Logan sign up for the force — after all, they’re in the midst of a recruitment drive to find more Black officers — but he doesn’t fully make up his mind until after his father gets roughed up by the cops over a minor parking offense. Seeing his dad badly bruised in the hospital, Logan realizes he needs to commit himself to reshaping law enforcement. If he doesn’t, who will?
One of the things that’s consistently absorbing about Red, White and Blue is that McQueen never tries to make us think this is a good idea. This kind of biopic tends toward the blandly inspirational — reassuring us that, yes, one person can change the world — but there’s little resembling a happy ending here. Instead, we see Logan’s stubborn determination to make a difference — and also, tellingly, a bit of his naivete and arrogance in assuming that he alone can undo decades of institutional racism. Red, White and Blue is a sober illustration of the difficulties policing faces. One good cop is a start, but it’s not nearly enough.
McQueen’s dispassionate approach works especially well in this film, which spends a fair amount of its 80-minute runtime chronicling Logan’s journey through bootcamp. With an almost clinical precision, McQueen shows just how capable a policeman Logan would be: He’s got the smarts, he’s got the physical stamina and he’s got the emotional intelligence that’s so important for the job. No surprise, then, that he graduates at the top of his class — a fact that pleases this lifelong model student. His dad raised him to be the best. He plans on doing exactly the same as a cop.
That’s why it pains Logan so when he finally reveals to Kenneth that he’s become a policeman. His dad sees it only as a betrayal — both in terms of how he raised him and also because of the violence that sent him to the emergency room. Why would Logan throw away a great career for a fool’s errand? Boyega does a terrific job convincing us of Logan’s conviction — even if Logan is never able to fully convince anyone of the practicality of his plan, including the audience. And yet, inspirational dramas often feature underdogs who defy the odds. The very structure of Red, White and Blue lulls us into believing that everything will work out for Logan. But the actual film mocks our vain hopes.
After graduating, Logan is assigned to his post in his old neighborhood, quickly realizing just how little his white superiors think of the Black civilians they’re meant to protect. As he has often during the Small Axe films — the final two chapters will air over the next two Fridays — McQueen deftly explores the subtle, persistent influence of racism on everyday life. There are no outlandish moments of racial hatred in Red, White and Blue — there’s just this constant, insidious irritation in the form of offhand remarks and passive-aggressive behavior. And no matter how confident and bright Logan is, he can’t defeat a long-held set of assumptions. He can’t change a belief system that doesn’t want to change. Just as troubling for him are the looks he gets from Black residents — including some he knows — once he starts walking the beat. They don’t see him as someone trying to make a difference. They see him as part of the problem.
The precision of Red, White and Blue’s storytelling — the careful rollout of all the factors working against Logan — is utterly gripping, but it wouldn’t mean as much without Boyega’s impassioned performance. We sense Logan’s youthful bravado, and so the character’s brutal collision with reality is traumatic because of the racism he endures. But it’s also personally humbling: He’s never failed before.
Moved by Boyega’s poignancy — the juxtaposition of noble aspirations and dispiritingly immovable societal ills — I couldn’t help but think about the frustration the actor has expressed recently about playing Finn in the new Star Wars films. Cast after launching onto the scene in the delightful 2011 film Attack the Block, Boyega seemed destined for big things. But Finn always seemed a bit sidelined in that trilogy — as if the filmmaker didn’t know what exactly to do with him — and he’s finally venting about what he didn’t like about his Star Wars years.
“[W]hat I would say to Disney is do not bring out a Black character, market them to be much more important in the franchise than they are and then have them pushed to the side,” Boyega said this summer. “It’s not good. I’ll say it straight up.” In the same interview, he noted, “They gave all the nuance to Adam Driver, all the nuance to Daisy Ridley. Let’s be honest. Daisy knows this. Adam knows this. Everybody knows. I’m not exposing anything.”
Indeed, Boyega ultimately felt like an afterthought in those movies, which is why it’s deeply satisfying to see him be so commanding in Red, White and Blue. (Funny enough, there’s even a Star Wars reference in the film.) As Logan is increasingly inundated with racist treatment by his fellow officers — they won’t even provide backup when he’s in danger in the field — his pride and righteous anger only grow. With his father firmly against him — and his supportive but exasperated wife Gretl (Antonia Thomas) trying her best to be by his side — Logan is tempted to quit, and Boyega communicates all the character’s exasperation and anguish. If Logan hangs it up, does it mean systemic racism is a permanent stain? Does giving up mean giving up on the future?
Red, White and Blue ends on a somber, defiant note, leaving viewers to find out on their own how much Logan achieved in his career. But unlike his young protagonist, McQueen has no illusions about the hard road that must be undertaken to combat racism in our society — and that the journey may never have a stopping point. If anything, the film is about shaking off that initial wave of do-gooderism to prepare for the long fight ahead.
Boyega seems prepared for that fight. He’s talked about how the racist reaction he got from Star Wars fans helped open his eyes to being an activist. And this summer, he was an outspoken advocate of Black Lives Matter, going viral from a speech he delivered at a Hyde Park rally in June. “Black lives have always mattered,” he told the crowd. “We have always been important. We have always meant something. We have always succeeded regardless. And now is the time. I ain’t waiting.”
You can feel that urgency in every second of his performance in Red, White and Blue, which doesn’t provide comforting solutions but argues persuasively that these profound societal changes can’t wait — no matter how painful they’re going to be.