Red, White And Blue


Reviewed by: Anne-Katrin Titze

Red, White And Blue
"Each scene builds on the next to illuminate the specifics as well as the universal quality of experiences." | Photo: Courtesy of NYFF

What distinguishes Steve McQueen’s Red, White And Blue, co-written with Courttia Newland, from their collaboration on portraying a Blues party in Lovers Rock, and McQueen’s Mangrove on the Mangrove Nine, co-written with Alastair Siddons (all three screening in the Main Slate programme of the New York Film Festival), is the use of songs in the soundtrack. Mica Levi is the composer for the extraordinary Small Axe anthology, and here Gloria Jones, Afrika Bambaataa (Planet Rock), Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five (White Lines after Liquid Liquid’s Cavern), Al Green, and Billy Joel mark time and comment on the relationship between Leroy Logan (John Boyega) and his father (Steve Toussaint).

A young Leroy (Nathan Vidal) in school uniform waits for his father to pick him up after music lessons. Two white policemen come up to the little boy to search him and his trumpet case, stating a local break-in as excuse. His outraged father confronts the harassers and walks off with his son. A myriad of emotions happen at once. In the car as they drive off, we hear a Country/Western song with the lyrics “I can’t feel at home.” Leroy immediately asks for permission to change the music and puts in a cassette. Gloria Jones’s Tainted Love from 1964 starts to play. The faux anachronism of the song catapults the film into the future (Soft Cell’s version becomes a big hit in 1981), where we meet the adult Leroy working as a research scientist, looking into a microscope.

Each scene builds on the next to illuminate the specifics as well as the universal quality of experiences. A game of scrabble is used to show family dynamics. During a workout, his friend Eddie (Mark Stanley) suggests to Leroy that he would make a great police officer and that to be on the beat would suit him better than being in forensics. It is almost unheard of for a Black man in Eighties London, which is precisely why Leroy is tempted to bridge the divide.

Cinematographer Shabier Kirchner, who brilliantly shot the entire Small Axe anthology, chose a few highly unusual angles for closeups of objects in this instalment. These images resemble understated warning signs of things to come, the way birds and horses sense an earthquake some time before we do. An askew rearview mirror introduces a sequence that ends with the totally unjustified brutal beating of Leroy’s father by two police officers. When the son finds out what happened, we see him running, screaming out his emotions. The rage drives him to change the path of his career and thus history. He will be a small axe taking on a big tree.

While watching, I had to think about a story recalled by Sigmund Freud in connection to his own father. When he was 12 years old, his father told him about an incident that took place many years ago in the Galician village where he lived. A gentile had knocked off the father’s hat and told him to get off the sidewalk. “What did you do?” young Sigmund asked. His father responded that he picked up his hat from the gutter. The memory of his father’s humiliation and the resulting disillusion never left him.

What happens in Red, White and Blue is the exact opposite reaction, with Kenneth Logan doing what Freud would have wanted his father to do. Leroy’s father is a fighter, he wants justice and his day in court. And he does not want his son to join the police. Leroy speaks to his auntie Hyacinth (Seroca Davis), a police liaison, who is his friend Leee’s (Tyrone Huntley) mother, actually a say-so auntie, not a biological one. “You should be a benefit to the community” she insists. He takes it to heart and during the interview for new recruits explains that he applied to “combat negative attitudes.”

We see Leroy sing and dance to a song called Body Talk with Leee, who is a performer of some fame, who has a band. We get to know more and more facets of Leroy - here he is exuberant, dressed up in black leather pants, spilling wine on his old friend’s fluffy white carpet. Which leads up to a little not-so-inside joke. When Leroy tells his friend that he wants to join the force, Leee doesn’t miss a beat: “You’re going to be a Jedi, or something?” he asks. John Boyega is most famous for playing Finn in the Star Wars sequel trilogy: The Force Awakens (2015), The Last Jedi (2017), and The Rise Of Skywalker (2019).

Leroy’s father is furious about his son’s decision to join the force and throws him out of his house when he tries to explain his reasoning. Miraculously, because of the terrific script, actors, cinematography and direction, after merely twenty minutes into the film, we understand everyone’s point of view and why they react the way they do. This is a tremendous feat of storytelling and so difficult to pull off.

Gretl (Antonia Thomas) is Leroy’s wife. She is pregnant and he tells her that he needs her support right now. “As if you didn’t have it before?” She points out. “What you’re doing is important, so make it count.” Another fantastic father/son car moment is again marked by the choice of music. While driving to start his 6-week training to become a Metropolitan policeman, we hear Al Green’s How Do You Mend a Broken Heart on the car radio. And the song continues to play as the two of them walk up to the academy in Hendon as we are left sitting inside on the back seat.

Leroy’s success there and the amount of positive enforcement he gets - even becoming the “poster boy” for their “recruitment drive for coloured officers” - does not prepare him for the prejudice and systemic racism he faces at his first division. Although he has the calling of a hero “to protect and to serve,” the atmosphere he is greeted with ranges from passive aggressive to outwardly hostile. “The dicky bird tells me that you grew up here,” says the commanding officer without looking up from his paper; he calls Leroy “our golden boy” and plays silly power games with the command “dismissed”.

The Queen smiles from the picture on his wall. The only other non-white colleague, Asif (Assad Zaman) is reprimanded when speaking Urdu to the distressed couple of owners of an Indian restaurant that had just been ransacked and sprayed with racist graffiti. It is clear that “someone has got to be the bridge,” and yet, they are the officers who are overlooked for promotion and sent out into dangerous situations with no backup in sight.

A spectacular shot captures a flock of birds high up in the sky flying in formation. They head in one direction and we see white birds, they turn and we see black birds. It is impossible to tell, as they change colour in our eyes with every movement. They are beautiful and a reminder that society is still a long way away from this equality. Red, White and Blue is based on the actual life story of Leroy Logan who became a Superintendent of the Metropolitan Police Force.

Reviewed on: 05 Oct 2020
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A drama set in London's West Indian community.

Director: Steve McQueen

Writer: Steve McQueen, Courttia Newland

Starring: John Boyega, Steve Toussaint, Antonia Thomas, Seroca Davis, Tyrone Huntley, Assad Zaman, Joy Richardson, Tyrone Huntley, Nathan Vidal, Mark Stanley, Stephen Boxer

Year: 2020

Runtime: 60 minutes

Country: UK


New York 2020

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