Red, White And Blue is third in the series of five Small Axe films
brought to cinematic life for the small screen by Oscar winner and 2020 New Year’s honouree, artist, writer, and film director Sir Steve McQueen. In keeping with its two predecessors (Mangrove & Lovers Rock) Red, White and Blue, is a biopic of sorts – showing us the first 30-ish years in the life of one of the most important police officers ever produced by the Metropolitan Police – Leroy Logan, MBE, PhD., BSc., born in 1957, Islington, London. But, far from resorting to formulaic biographical story-telling, the Turner prize-winning artist within has driven McQueen to present this more intimate piece through a narrower lens than the ensemble-with-a-hero-amongst-heroes piece that was Mangrove, or the superficially intimate, more representative, statement piece that is Lovers Rock.
Jamaican immigrant lorry driver Kenneth Logan (Steve Toussaint) arrives at his son’s school slightly delayed, to find him in an exchange with a beat constable. Finding no cause for an actual booking or arrest, he ushers Leroy (Nathan Vidal) into his car, admonishing not just the PC for his inappropriate action, but also Leroy for submitting to it. He counsels the boy on what to do next time. Kenneth, as one of the hard-working Windrush Generation, with his hard-won family space, has a deep-rooted loathing of police harassment and is determined to instill education as the only and most powerful antidote into his children.
Years later, adult Leroy (John Boyega) has excelled academically and athletically, having completed a Ph.D. and secured a job in forensic science research in the Royal Free Hospital, North London. Kenneth is satisfied and proud of Leroy’s achievements, and remains immovable in his disdain for the police, as their racist harassment worsens from the 197Os into the 80s. His wife (Joy Richardson) and daughter Hyacinth (Seroca Davies) defer to him, silently, always. But, almost everyone else sees something else in Leroy. Former police liaison, Aunt Jesse Stevens (Nadine Marshall), mum to Leroy’s childhood best friend and rising pop superstar Leee John (an irrepressible Tyrone Huntley) of Imagination, not only dares to speak openly to Leroy about his obvious attraction to the police force but speaks without reference to Kenneth’s wishes.
Leroy is in love and dating the intellectually equal and supportive Gretl (Antonia Thomas) and is good friends with PC Greg Huggan (Liam Garrigan). Both supporting the idea that Leroy’s talent and future both lay more with the police, utilising his people skills and physicality, than with a white coat in a laboratory. One fateful week, both Leroy and his father each have a life-altering encounter with the police, setting them on a collision course which will test the bonds of love and family, dependence and individuality, and profoundly change policing in Britain forever.
Unhampered by the cultural insensitivities of a white, non-local production team (Detroit, 2017); strange casting (The Circle, 2017); simplistic storytelling (Imperial Dreams, 2014); small role (Half a Yellow Sun, 2013); the unforgivable crushing of canon and shoehorning in of stereotype by a major studio – a precision-trained stormtrooper is really, really unlikely to also have been a star destroyer’s sanitation worker, and yet… (Star Wars: The Saga Dies 2015 -19); and over-worked, unsubtle theatre adaptations (Woyzeck, Old Vic, 2017), as an actor, Boyega was excellent in them all. However, in Red, White, and Blue, there is a synergy which, judging by the three of five films I have seen, might be a signature of all five in the series.
McQueen co-wrote Red, White and Blue with acclaimed author and plawright Courttia Newland (also collaborating on Lovers Rock) and, on the whole, they have delivered us an overdue gift – John Boyega in a mature, complex, powerful, standout drama. This has been a long time coming. It shimmered into being in Attack The Block (2011) and excited, literally, everybody who saw it. And it has been trying to fully blossom ever since. Now Red, White, and Blue, a domestic television dramatic film, is the project that finally allows Boyega to do what Daniel Kaluuya was able to achieve much more rapidly and consistently – solidify, activate, and wield his Denzel Effect in all its glory. Almost from the very first time you become aware of his presence on screen you are his; captivated, engrossed, convinced, involved.
This synergy created by a perfect storm of Steve McQueen and his co-directors, co-writers, actors and, one would hope, more racially representative production staff, raises the leads in particular, and the supporting cast around them, to a level beyond most of what you will have seen from them before and may or may not have suspected they were capable of. I dare BAFTA to ignore all five or any of the central lead and supporting cast like they ignored Regina King in 2019 (If Beale Street Could Talk)!
In McQueen’s vision of Leroy Logan, he captures not only the obvious difficulties of a black man joining an institution both intellectually and demonstrably prejudiced against him with no means of shielding from it; and the direct conflict and strain this places on the important relationship with his father; but also the far subtler story, which might be recognised by black Britons who have pursued higher education, and the profound sense of isolation that solitary blackness in a sea of white academia can bring. Boyega handles it all beautifully. He takes everything McQueen and Newland pack into their script, and delivers.
The only disappointment is the unexpectedly short running time. Boyega as Leroy is beauty, power, rage, tenderness, love, helplessness, obstinacy, determination, perfectly expressed either his holy trinity arsenal of that voice, really coming into its own now, along with that face and that talent. You empathise and root for him all the way, Hopefully, there will be fewer miss-steps with projects for the next little while.
Steve Toussaint, an actor consistently working between the UK and USA on stage and screen, also delivers one of his strongest performances to date. His masculinity perfectly embodies the frustrations of the Windrush Generation: the humiliations that men of the time felt most particularly because they were men unable to do what men were expected to do: defend themselves, their families, their homes from bullies. His performance does the rest. As accents go, this is the most authentic I think I’ve ever heard him, and his ease in inhabiting it adds flash to his polish. This is the most truth I have recognised in him (though his comedic turn in Idris Elba’s In The Long Run, S3 eps 2-3, was awesome). Raised by either or both of your parents, followed or ignored wholeheartedly or in part, Kenneth’s philosophy and Toussaint’s delivery of it will resonate nostalgically in unexpected ways. For those not of the Caribbean community who still don’t believe that our men have healthy relationships with their fathers, watch and take note. Toussaint should be deeply proud of this work.
Nadine Marshall has long been recognised, even by the mainstream, as a powerhouse of acting talent. As such, deservedly so, whether on screen or on stage, she has rarely been out of work since 2002. Most recently Idris Elba directed her as Miss Hammond in Yardie (2018) and steered by Lennie James as DS Shola O’Halloran in Save Me (2018-20). debbie tucker green directed her as Jax in Second Coming (2014) opposite Elba. Often playing intense, complex and uncompromising characters, what Marshall found in McQueen’s direction was a perceptible softening, a sympathy which I’m not sure I’ve quite seen before, even under dtg’s direction. Aunt Jesse is Leroy’s partial inspiration and his most non-threatening connection to the Force, encouraging his attraction to police work. Her ferocity is undiminished, as she must also stand up to the full force of Kenneth’s frustration. No problems there then.
Antonia Thomas, who impressed as an OG in Misfits (2009-13) for 21 episodes until 2011, has made her mark in America in The Good Doctor (2017-) as central supporting cast member surgical resident Dr. Claire Brown. In Red, White and Blue, she is Leroy’s mixed-race girlfriend Gretl. She is calm, considered, supportive, intelligent, and wise. Her accent is consistent, but whether it is African-based Dutch or French is impossible to tell, and there’s not much information available about her. Thomas does a great deal with very little material. You will like her immensely. But, like Aunt Jesse and Mrs. Logan, Hyacinth and Linda (Lorna Gayle), Gretl and all the female characters are woefully, criminally underwritten. Aunt Jesse and Gretl are, on close examination, one-dimensional. But the calibre of performances delivered by Marshall and Thomas render them tangible and real, literally breathing life into them.
Hyacinth and Mrs. Logan do not fare so well. Despite being grown women participating in family games like Scrabble, requiring intellect on an equal footing, they have no agency, no purchase, no voice in this story. They ghost around their home, turned inward, dulled in colour, eyes downcast, voices mute. Though Leroy seemed to have relationships and strong connections with all of these women, they remained largely unexplored.
It is not clear whose message this is. I’m not sure that a Logan household drawn with such strict misogynistic lines of favour could have produced someone like Leroy Logan seems to be. It would appear to be a contradiction of character, and a line uttered by Logan suggests that Hyacinth might have been subject to the same educational drive and pressures that he was. Set in the late 70s to mid-80s, societal and Caribbean-British community misogyny was less intense.
Again, though with much more subtlety than in Mangrove, Gretl, with lighter-skin and of mixed heritage, is the only woman of colour to be physically shown any tenderness, romance or love of any kind. Even with a married woman of darker skin right there – Mrs. Logan. Perhaps it is simply a function of the shorter-than-average running time of 80 minutes. Certainly, another ten or 15 minutes could have been used to flesh out the female characters of the central supporting cast, at least.
The climax is a departure from the average biopic. McQueen gives the final beat over entirely to Leroy and Kenneth, and it is a deeply gratifying one, not only for it’s framing of a black father and son relationship, but also for its meaning in the story at hand. It is then followed by the closing credits, not by any clarifying screen notes about what Leroy or The Met did next. This differs even from what McQueen did in Mangrove, and he gives an account of why he changed things up in our podcast interview.
Great stuff. Enjoy.
Red White and Blue airs on BBC1 at 9pm on 29th November 2020 for 1 hour 20 minutes, the 3rd film from Sir Steve McQueen’s Small Axe Series.