Red, White and Blue is the third film in Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology, which premiered at this year’s New York Film Festival, but it’s actually the final entry in the series. Though the remaining two entries have yet to be seen, Red, White and Blue is an appropriate and effective conclusion to the project, in many ways mirroring the first film, Mangrove, and serving as a timely reminder that the fight against racism, especially in the police force, is far from over.
Mangrove depicted the court trial of the Mangrove Nine, a group of protestors who were falsely charged with inciting a riot, as they fought for justice against a corrupt and racist police force who routinely harassed them. Red, White and Blue is also concerned with portraying the racism prevalent in West London police, though its true story takes place a decade later in the 1980s. John Boyega plays Leroy Logan, a London resident who gives up his career as a scientist to become a police officer. He’s seen the hostile attitudes and racism of the police firsthand—his own father was beaten in an unprovoked attack by officers—and it motivates him to join in an attempt to change the broken system from the inside.
His choice is mostly met with derision from those close to him, especially his father (Steve Toussaint) who views him joining the racist institution as a betrayal of his Black community. The film’s focus is on his internal struggle and his relationship with his father, as he grapples with his decision. Boyega is stellar, bringing vulnerability to the role without diminishing Logan’s fervent passion and determination. In one of the film’s most powerful scenes, he becomes the direct target of racial harassment from other officers, and his reaction is simultaneously explosive and restrained. It’s heartbreaking to witness his inevitable disillusionment, as he’s given no support from within the police force.
A typical version of this film would focus on that conflict between Logan and the other officers, but Red, White and Blue isn’t about Logan’s battle against a corrupt system, but rather his own internal conflict with his decision and how it impacts his relationship with his family and community. The film’s empowering message isn’t about how one man can single-handedly fight corruption, but how he gains the strength to even try through the encouragement and support of those close to him. In a daring move, McQueen avoids a neat resolution, instead of concluding with Logan rising the ranks to become superintendent of the Metropolitan police, he ends the film with a conversation that evokes a commonality between then and now. It’s a simultaneously bleak and inspiring idea: the battle for racial equality is not over, but the will to fight is just as strong.
With three strong entries thus far, Small Axe is shaping up to be a brilliant feat: a collection of films which are unique and enjoyable individually, but together, form an expansive look at the power of community.