A Bridge Too Far: McQueen Explores the Inherent Sacrifice of Community Service in Straightforward Drama
With Red, White and Blue, the third film in Steve McQueen’s five-title “Small Axe” anthology, the director returns to the latter end of the project’s trajectory (which examines West Indian narratives from 1968 to the 1980s) and returns to the examination of systemic and police racism of Mangrove with yet another true story though presented on a much more intimate level.
Technically a biopic on Leroy Logan, the first Black member of the London Metropolitan Police Force in the 1980s, it’s also a portrait of the need for necessary structural reorganization through diversification and the inherent sacrifice of putting community needs before personal gain. An impassioned performance from John Boyega elevates this more straightforward narrative structure from McQueen.
Leroy Logan (Boyega) has grown up witnessing his father Kenneth (Steve Toussaint) brutalized at the hands of white police. An incident depicted from his childhood, as well as the influence of family friend, Jesse (Nadine Marshall), who works as a police liaison, instills in him a sense of needing to devote his life to changing a racist institution from the inside out. While completing his degree in forensics and starting a family of his own with Gretl (Antonia Thomas), he decides to take the plunge and apply to join the MET with the hopes of becoming a beat cop. His goal is to serve as a bridge between the police force and his community, but he doesn’t realize how isolated he’ll become serving as this bridge. Kenneth is enraged at his son’s decision, seeing as it happens around the same time he is brutally beaten and hospitalized by two white police officers.
Red, White and Blue covers the same ground as something like Monsters and Men (2018) from Reinaldo Marcus Green on the American side of this perpetual problem, but without the clinical estrangement from its various characters. But again, this is about the specific experience of a Black person shouldering both the disdain of his community and the police force—it’s a particular Catch-22 which suggests a particular kind of alienation. Instead, this is a more personal, low-key odyssey about doing the right thing from the perspective of someone willing to use themselves as an agent of change (and, again, a more potent realization of such a possibility than countless films about ‘good’ white cops trying to do their best to navigate a hopelessly corrupt system, a la Colors, 1988). The soundtrack is less pronounced than in Lovers Rock or Mangrove, mores so used as device to narrate a period (such as Al Green or Billy Joel’s Uptown Girl marks the passage of time from the opening sequences effectively).
McQueen and scribe Courttia Newland craft an eloquent role for Boyega, quoting Robert Peel’s policing principles on how “the police are the public and the public are the police” as a sort of timeless rubric never quite reached. As Logan begins to realize the true dimensions of the chasm he’s trying to breach is wider than he could have conceived, self-doubt sets in. McQueen efficiently conveys immediate distrust of his own community, conditioned by their brutalization at the hands of the police, and the professional institution rigidly averse to supporting the kind of systemic changes needed to foster a harmonious environment. As such, the tribulations faced by a trailblazer provide the nexus of how Red, White and Blue nears the precipice of hopelessness.
Paralleled by the familial trauma exacerbated by Logan’s joining of the police force, McQueen grants Steve Toussaint an exceptional characterization as his father Kenneth. Violently beaten by two policemen and embroiled in a subsequent court case which simmers in the background of Logan’s decision to segue from scientist to beat cop, it’s really the father-son narrative which allows for the film’s necessary ray of hope. Nadine Marshall as the police liaison who influences Logan’s decision, shines in several key moments involving Toussaint’s displeasure. Overall, an unequivocal chapter on quiet heroism through serving one’s community, Red, White and Blue is an enjoyable melodrama recuperating a certain person from a certain time whose personal sacrifices assisted in allowing for at least the modicum of progress towards equality, empathy and understanding.
Reviewed virtually on October 3rd at the 2020 New York Film Festival. Main Slate – 80 Mins