In ‘Red White, and Blue,’ Steve McQueen Exhibits One of His Most Exciting Modes as a Director: Cool Anger
The confused, frightened, complying face of a young black boy as two Metropolitan police stop, search, and humiliate him on the street: This is one of the first things we see in Red, White, and Blue, the third in Steve McQueen’s Small Axe pentalogy, now streaming on Amazon Prime Video. It’s an image that grows even more charged in hindsight, a few scenes (spanning years) later, when the boy’s father — who’d swooped in to save him in that earlier encounter — is badly beaten by the police on the street in plain day. The act is unequivocally unjust. The man, Ken Logan (a great Steve Toussaint) is accused of parking his truck illegally, and makes the grave error of thinking that being in the right, nevermind going out of his way to prove it, will matter to booted, uniformed men whose sole interest is in enforcing compliance. The officers knock him to the ground, kick him, beat him senseless. The scene ends with Logan crying out his name.
By the time of the older Logan’s beating, his son Leroy (John Boyega) is a grown man with a child of his own on the way. It is the early 1980s. On the radio: Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl” and Mellie Mel’s “White Lines (Don’t Don’t Do It).” And in the culture at large — well. Logan’s beating is confirmation enough that things that have not changed. But his son has changed. Logan junior, no longer a frightened boy but now a rather headstrong and defiantly principled, altogether virtuous man, has earned a Ph.D. in the sciences and lived his life to the letter. He has made his family proud, aloft on the kind of intelligence and discipline that can, all things being equal, afford a man options in life. His choice is between a life of research, which he rejects, and a life in forensics, which he’s about to reject. Another seed has been planted. By the time Leroy arrives at the hospital to see his father — whose body is broken, whose eyes are swollen shut — Leroy the man has already begun to venture down a new life path. He’s decided to join the club, which is to say, the police.
Red, White, and Blue is based on an early chapter in the real life story Leroy Logan, a now-retired police veteran who served the force for 30 years, collecting accolades and notoriety along the way. Each film in McQueen’s Small Axe depicts some new angle on black British resistance. Mangrove, the first film, tackled the 1970 trial that resulted in the British court system acknowledging, for the first time, that there was “evidence of racial hatred” in the nation’s police practices. The latest film — conspicuously set a decade after that stunning admission — trains its eye on the effort of a black son of West Indian immigrants to change the police from the inside.
For an American audience schooled on Hollywood depictions of police, this is a classic story — a history evoked, in wry tension with the film’s specifically British setting and context, by its very title. Red, White, and Blue is set in the wake of a canny integration effort on the British police force’s part. They’ve begun to actively recruit non-white officers, the sons and daughters of Britain’s embattled immigrants, in an effort — the story goes — to aid in community relations. All it takes is one person in the film mentioning, practically offhand, that this damned-from-the-start effort has already long been underway in the U.S. to spark, in turn, a mental survey of black law enforcement in American movies, figures who’ve been deployed to symbolize any number of racial attitudes.
There’s Ivan Dixon’s canonical blaxploitation movie The Spook Who Sat By the Door (1973), based on Sam Greenlee’s 1969 novel, which got a jump start on satirizing the idea by making its super-qualified hero an infiltrating revolutionary in disguise, hellbent on using the training of American law enforcement (in this case, the CIA) to in turn train the militant black left. There are the sellouts, too: humiliatingly aggressive black members of the LAPD in Boyz N’ the Hood and Menace II Society, who, pointedly, are no more humane, in their treatment of black Angelenos, than their white colleagues. There are the deranged bad boys (Denzel Washington, Training Day) on the one hand and, bundled and numerous in the other, a parade of morally conflicted do-gooders whose conflicting race and profession keep them up at night: Ice Cube in The Glass Shield, Laurence Fishburne in Deep Cover, Naomie Harris in the more recent Black and Blue, John David Washington in the Oscar-winning BlacKkklansman — we could keep going. Sometimes we’re even gifted a black cop with minimal racial baggage. If Reginald VelJohnson’s Sgt. Al Powell (Die Hard), again of the LAPD, feels any inner conflict over his profession, it’s because he killed someone, period — not so much because of the race of the man on either side of that gun.
Hollywood-wise, in other words, Logan’s got company — including the Boyega of Kathryn Bigelow’s ill-advised but well-acted Detroit, set during that city’s racial uprisings of the Sixties. That was a role not unlike this new one: a conflicted, admirably-intentioned, real-life black cop caught in the social crosshairs. (Someone’s going to make the case for Boyega’s deprogrammed Stormtrooper in the new Star Wars movies having a place in this conversation; I won’t stop them.) An essential difference between McQueen’s film and Bigelow’s, besides the former being a better movie, is that its immediate focus is on the endgame of these good intentions. Look at the ways Logan gets talked into this out-there idea in the first place. A white running buddy says: “You’re well-spoken; you’re clean-cut; you’re a stand-up bloke. Don’t you reckon you’d be perfect for that?” His Aunt Jesse (Nadine Marshall), a police liaison herself, says he needs to do it for the community’s sake — take those smarts, good looks, and respectable charm of his and, rather than wasting it behind a forensics desk, use them to benefit the black community (by, she says without saying, proving our collective interest in being good citizens.) His partner Gretl (Antonia Thomas) is a bit less diplomatic. He’s not the kind of guy who can let his good deeds go unseen, she says. Then she reminds him of his tendency toward macho respectability, as if the choice has already been made.
Somewhere in all of this there’s a compliment… But McQueen’s movie is too wise to let these moments read without irony or bite. Leroy is a man of great qualities — all of them ingredients in a frustrated, upstanding, rational black masculinity. Red, White, and Blue is a slim 80 minutes or so, yet the terrain it covers — historically, politically, socially, intra-culturally — is expansive, because Leroy is expansive. The plot is straightforward. Logan trains at the police academy; excels; becomes a cop; struggles. The outcomes each step of the way offer little surprises. Logan is, by all accounts, good at being a policeman and noble in his cause. On a ridealong with a friend, he displays a sharper eye for detail than even the working PCs — and this is before he even joins the force. The physical abilities he displays at academy are superior to everyone else’s; his attitude is as crisp and neat and to-the-letter as the creases in his uniform. In his interview to get into the academy, he’s smart enough to volunteer, up front, for a position predicated on mending ties to the black community — a position he’d have been pushed into whether he wanted it or not, as he probably knows. Even more smartly, he does not wince when the white officer interviewing him, a higher-up, explicitly says as much.
Who is this guy? Whence comes the black British 20-something, his own father still recovering from having been beaten beyond recognition by cops, who can quote Sir Robert Peele — father of the London metropolitan police — by heart? (Peele in 1892: “[T]he police are the public [and] the public are the police.”) Red, White, and Blue is, in a basic sense, a character study. Yet like the best of that genre it analyzes, problematizes, the moral content of that character. And the composite picture of Leroy Logan that emerges is murky and contingent. In Leroy’s choice to become a cop, he is in many ways violating, not only the sense of racial obligation his parents meant to instill in him — the drive, in other words, to always be better in a nation that will always pretend you are worse — but also the political unity assumed of that identity. But then it’s precisely that drive to be better that not only makes Leroy such a quick study and sterling candidate for the job; more damagingly, it verges on feeling like a foregone conclusion of this upbringing. “You wanted us more British than the British,” says Leroy to his father during an argument, with a tone of, What did you expect?
We could ask Leroy that question when the camera zeroes in on his expressions after a black teenager on the street calls him a “coconut” and a Judas, or his white fellow officers scribble racial epithets on his locker. Two images in the movie sum him up most radically; both are a credit to McQueen’s precise hand and Boyega’s incredible depths as an actor. One is of Leroy, wearing his full uniform for the first time, regarding himself in the mirror, his face calm on the surface yet abundant with inner chaos just one layer beneath. The other comes soon after: Leroy in his exit interview at academy, sitting in a broad, well-lit room which, when the scene finally cuts to him in medium close-up, has somehow completely cast in shadow, rendering him into a near-silhouette of himself.
Here’s McQueen working in one of his most exciting modes as a director: cool anger. In contrast to the passionate political thrust of of Mangrove and the heated groove of Lovers Rock, Red, White, and Blue is wrought of images that feel clinical and removed — until you mash them together into a movie. That’s when the hellmouth cracks open, and all the seeming poise at the movie’s surface is revealed for the disguise that it is. The studied symmetries, the visual confrontations marked along racial lines, all of it is expressive, and much of it works. Even some of the obvious effects — a “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” needle drop during a moment of reconciliation; a cut to a close-up on Leroy’s face when a white officer likens black neighborhoods to a “jungle” — tend to sneak past our defenses to land galvanizing blows.
The tense urgency we feel throughout this movie owes in great part to its structure, which, particularly in some of the argumentative family scenes, has a way of dredging up a thousand things at once, because any one rift risks giving everyone the excuse to lay bare all the despair and disagreement that’d been suppressed to that point. The conflicts throughout this movie twine and overlap to the point of making a viewer feel anxiety when there’s none to feel. The brewing family dilemma, the baby on the way, dad’s court case, the moral tumult of Leroy’s choice… It’s a hothouse of dramatic collision.
It doesn’t quite convince us of an answer to a question that seems central to Leroy’s attitude — the What did you expect? The movie’s last third, leaden with workplace discrimination, feels too easy in light of the tangled dilemmas that dominated the movie to that point. Nevertheless, the moral muck that is Leroy Logan captivates as handily as it frustrates. The plot doesn’t extend to the present; the real Logan’s actual reputation today never comes into view. We’re left, instead, with the question of his character — and his future. When, at one point, a fellow non-white officer, a young Pakistani man, asks Leroy why he joined the force when he could have been anything, Leroy gives the expected spiel about serving his community. Then he says something striking: “Someone’s got to take out the rubbish.” So: a cop after all. Good cop? Bad? If the movie sees a difference in Leroy’s specific case, it never declares one. It’s condemnation is more pointedly reserved for the racism of the force; it’s skepticism is pointed squarely at one man’s ability to do anything about it from inside. And its sympathy is for Leroy’s condition, a complex, aspirational naivete whose roots, in this movie, grow above ground, are as plain as the eye can see. This is not the story of what comes next for Leroy Logan. It is, far more fruitfully, a brittle account of how we got here in the first place.