'Red, White and Blue' Review: John Boyega Gives a Powerhouse Performance in a Steve McQueen's Most Challenging 'Small Axe' Film [NYFF 2020]
5th October 2020

“Big change…that is a slow-turning wheel.”

There are no easy victories in Red, White and Blue, the last in Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series highlighting the London West Indian community between the 1960s and 1980s. Following the story of Leroy Logan (John Boyega), a young forensic scientist who is driven by racial injustice against his father to become a police officer, Red, White and Blue is by far McQueen’s most challenging film of the series, not just because it takes on the tangled topic of racist policing, but because it refuses to give us, the audience, the satisfaction of a Hollywood happy ending. Instead, Red, White and Blue is a difficult, oftentimes bleak, reflection of the Sisyphean fight for racial equality with Boyega at the center as that mythic figure fruitlessly rolling the boulder up the mountain.

Boyega is tremendous in the lead role as Leroy, an upstanding young man with a bright future in forensic science ahead of him. But he, like many Black children growing up in 1970s London, had been plagued by racial discrimination his whole life by suspicious policemen who would frequently stop-and-search him, even as a young boy going to music lessons. We never get a sense for why Leroy had ever aspired to be a policeman as a kid when all his experiences with them, and all his righteous father would teach him, was that of mistrust. But we do get a sense of just how good Leroy is, and how unflagging he is in his belief that he can exact change.

When Leroy’s father Kenneth (a blazing Steve Toussaint) is assaulted by police officers over a nonexistent parking violation, Leroy’s peaceful existence — he is on track to be a successful forensic scientist and his wife has a baby on the way — is shattered. Kenneth is determined to go to court, but Leroy is convinced that the only way to make meaningful change is from within the system itself. He gives up his science ambitions to join the police force with the goal of making the police the “bridge” between the minority communities that he thinks they can be. Remarkably, Red, White and Blue dedicates half of the film to charting Leroy’s journey to actually becoming a cop, from his controversial decision that causes his father to throw him out of the house, to his time at the police academy where he becomes an ace student.

It’s been a while since a filmmaker really properly utilized Boyega — a fact that the outspoken actor has become keenly aware of since he was so poorly utilized in the Star Wars films. But McQueen has an innate understanding with the actor, who partially uses Leroy as a bullhorn for his impassioned cries for racial change that he has been making in real life. In Boyega’s wide-set shoulders and dense mass (far more hulking than he was in the Star Wars films), you see the burden that falls on his shoulders, of that boulder that he must roll up the mountain, heaving and stumbling all the way. His performance is intensely physical, Leroy often shedding his buttoned-up persona to work through his rage with a punching bag. There’s a long-simmering anger brimming beneath Leroy’s well-put together exterior, which slowly crumbles as he weathers more and more racial slurs and hatred. The Metropolitan Police Force unit that he’s assigned to is full of sneering bigots, while the community that he was so determined to connect with considers him a traitor. “I feel like someone’s got to be the bridge, but when you do that your realize you’re alone,” he bemoans to the lone South Asian constable at his precinct.

Red, White and Blue is not, forgive the term, as black and white as the past Small Axe films. It is difficult and uneasy, and often feels more punishing than entertaining. Where McQueen’s past entries celebrated both the joy and pain of Black communities, Red, White and Blue has a more burdened goal that ultimately raises more questions than answers. Neither does Red, White and Blue doesn’t take place in a specific year, though you can make some assumptions based on the feathered hair and the Shaft-esque outfits. Its timeless quality adds to the contemporary urgency of the film, transparently calling attention to how little things have changed. And sadly, we never see that boulder get to the top.

/Film Rating: 8.5 out of 10

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