Red, White and Blue: Strong Reaction, So Alive, by David Bax
Small Axe is the name given to the collection of five feature films, of which Red, White and Blue is the third, about the cultural and life experiences of Black Britons. Three movies in, it’s become interesting to see what the entries have in common beyond fulfilling the above mission statement. We’ll get to some of those things in later paragraphs but the most obvious commonality is that all of them are directed by Steve McQueen. It’s fascinating to see how his aesthetic–sometimes choosing to keep the camera stubbornly static when a move or cut would be the natural choice or framing shots with seemingly crucial elements cropped out, emphasizing things like the food on the family table instead of those talking around it–applies to various story modes from the dramatization of a real life court case to a sublime, almost experimental night of partying. Red, White and Blue, another film based in reality, sometimes feels frustratingly (and possibly intentionally) undercooked but McQueen’s cinematic choices keep our curiosity piqued.
John Boyega stars as Leroy Logan, a Black scientist who made a sudden career change and joined the police force after his father (played here marvelously by Steve Toussaint) was assaulted by two officers. Logan didn’t retire until 2013 but Red, White and Blue covers only his earliest experiences as a cadet and a young constable.
Maybe the most unexpected bit of consistency in this third Small Axe film is the focus on music. At the restaurant in Mangrove or, of course, the party in Lovers Rock, it’s an expected ingredient. Cop dramas, on the other hand, are a less common showcase for diegetic music. But Logan’s interest in early 1980s disco-infused soul music defines his relationship with his father (who doesn’t share his taste), his best friend (a professional musician), his fellow trainees at the academy (he makes his first friend, a white man, based on the tunes coming from his dormitory room) and even the community he eventually polices.
McQueen and co-screenwriter Courttia Newland (with whom he also wrote Lovers Rock) don’t pretend for a second that music is some sort of panacea, though. Logan’s eventual clashes with his white co-workers can’t be overcome by putting a record on but Red, White and Blue shows even more interest in the conflicts Logan faces within his own community. McQueen wouldn’t be adhering to his established Small Axe ethos if he weren’t specific and honest about differing factions within the Black community. At times, the sucking of teeth in disapproval from neighbors and relatives seems to sting as much as the slurs and disrespect from other constables.
In fact, for a while, it starts to feel like that’s the only real pushback he’s going to get. In the sections set at the academy, Logan appears to be encouraged when he discusses his intention to address the force’s problems from within and his instructors applaud his exemplary performance. It could be that the members of the force who teach new recruits are more thoughtful than the average officer. Or it could be that it’s one thing when Logan’s words are theoretical and another entirely when his boots meet the pavement. Once assigned to a precinct, his treatment by others transforms immediately into abuse.
It’s interesting that McQueen and Newland choose to stop the story when they do, not detailing the real Logan’s eventual activism. The movie illustrates how equal treatment is viewed as unfair “special treatment” by those accustomed to benefiting from inequality. That’s as much the case now as it was 40 years ago so perhaps McQueen didn’t want to offer false hope. Red, White and Blue‘s seeming assertion that it’s simply not possible to change a corrupt institution from within is worth considering. The result is a less than satisfying one but that may very well be the point.