Red, White and Blue (Small Axe) (Review)

The true story of Leroy Logan is the inspiration for the third instalment of Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series. This exhibits the masterful visual storytelling you would expect, and deftly deals with powerful and pertinent themes.

Though primarily about a young Black man, Leroy (John Boyega), joining the police force with the aim of combatting its racism from the inside, this is also a wider tale about broken systems. McQueen and his crew powerfully juxtapose two narratives, Leroy’s and his father’s, Ken (Steve Toussaint). Ken is the victim of a very public, racist assault by police officers – and is seeking justice through a legal system that he has been told is there to protect him. Much like Mangrove before it, the film contrasts the image a society projects and the reality of living in it as a Black citizen. What this evolves into is two characters learning, in a non-didactic way, that they cannot achieve the change they need through broken systems. The most impressive part here, on a storytelling level, being how these two paths purposefully contradict each other (joining the police versus taking the police to court) while also cleverly mirror each other. Towards the end there are haunting shots of each protagonist, that are stylistically linked; these connections pushing the point that both men are trying – and failing – to achieve the same goal.

So much of the film is told visually. Like with the two previous instalments, a clear sense of place is effortlessly evoked. A lot of this is down to the style of writing, an approach that foregrounds naturalism while allowing the filmmaking to carry the symbolism and a lot of the narrative weight. A character’s actions define their emotions far more than their words do – though their words are well written. A small scale example of this is an early scene where a close-up on the fresh spinnaker hole of a record, cuts to a mounted gold disc, and then cuts to characters dancing in the room and holding champagne, telling you everything you need to know about who is who. Later, when somebody mentions ‘the musician’ you know exactly who it was without being directly told. This is a very minor moment but it is emblematic of the overall approach where the camera does so much of the work, and is always in the perfect place.

The filmmaking here is so interestingly deliberate, but never in a way that undercuts the naturalism. Every shot allows you to consider what the camera placement is doing (on a subtextual level), but also just cleverly highlights what needs to be highlights in the scene. For example, there are a lot of shots that linger inside cars, often after characters have left them. This is used for different reasons but there is always the lingering feeling is of being stuck on the inside and feeling limited through this. Of course, this matches the arc of Logan as a police officer, whose attempt to enact change from within leads to him being constrained – to say the least. Also, these kind of shots are done to show distance from a community – keeping you with the institution rather than out there on the street to literalise the metaphorical barrier. Unbridgeable divides is a motif the film returns to time and time again, sometimes shown through limiting a character to the edge of a screen but often directly displayed through interactions.

Leroy is a charming protagonist played superbly by Boyega. He demonstrates a range of emotions while always feeling consistent – and managing to channel his star-power and charisma into somebody that feels importantly normal. Leroy is not a hero hero: he is a credible, noble and flawed person. He is host to a naivety linked with an idealism that is lightly critiqued, but the film is hugely sympathetic to his plight – while also making it clear why members of his community are not. The film pulls off a brilliant balancing act of making you care for this character while also being aware he is making the wrong decision and that his actions are futile. Much of this is down to writing but so much of this is down to the brilliance of Boyega’s performance, as he effortlessly segues between the intimate and the broadly dramatic.

Red, White and Blue is another effective and, depressingly, prescient film from McQueen. Here, racism is shown as endemic in the police force – and this is shown in a variety of ways. Some of this is very overt, and needs to be, but a lot of it is in the prosaic power plays employed by supposedly superior officers: the calculated pauses and the purposeful verbal slips. Sound plays a big role here also, the repetitive noise of the bleep test at one point seamlessly blends into a blaring siren of a violent riot policing drill, these staccato rhythms providing an oppressive soundscape – while also representing the rote, machinelike nature of the system (and the normalisation of violence). This is similar to a moment in McQueen’s early short Western Deep, in which carefully engineered sound design is used to overwhelm the viewer. We later have a moment in an industrial space, seemingly a purposeful homage to that scene from In the Heat of the Night (an intelligent reference point to make), in which the repetitive, droning noise of machines dominates the soundscape to create tension. However, it also makes the whole thing feel mechanical – machinelike once again – in a way that perfectly links to the scenes resolution and what is being said about the mechanism that is the police force.

This may be the weakest of the anthology so far, its slight length feeling like a budgetary necessity but a light constraint – as the wider themes could have stretched much further. It is still, however, excellent. In fact, brevity is used powerfully as the story here does not fit into a conventional narrative arc. To begin with, it feels like a lot of build up to the extent you are unsure who it will deal with all the contradictory and conflicting elements. How it actually does this is brilliant, bringing things abruptly together in a way that underscores how things don’t just end, or resolve, or tie up neatly. This film speaks as much to today as it does to its historical period, and the lack of resolution is a part of this. These issues are not solved, but they are showcased, and we are left with an open debate. The message here is simple: keep the debate alive and push for the change we need.

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