The final installment of the Small Axe anthology to play at the 2020 New York Film Festival, Red, White and Blue is not just the best of the trio, it’s among Steve McQueen‘s most interesting efforts. With a blistering turn by John Boyega at its core, this evolves well between what could have otherwise been a simple biopic. Part cop drama, part character study, part observation of institutional racism, and all a picture of the moment, McQueen again looks back in order to show us some direction about where to go forward. The theme has been present throughout the anthology, though here it’s at its most effective.
Red, White and Blue happens to appear more generic than the other installments, at least on the surface, but it’s truly not. It’s a character study at its core, looking at one true story that still rings quite true today. Unfortunately, that’ll prove as frustrating and upsetting as any Small Axe scenario being depicted.
Just to mention once again, this is only one of five parts in McQueen’s Small Axe anthology series. NYFF 2020 includes two other installments in Lovers Rock and Mangrove, though this one got tapped for the special treatment. This review only talks about Red, White and Blue, but just like the last two times, keep in mind that it’s meant to overall be consumed as part of something larger.
Telling the true story of Leroy Logan (Boyega), the film takes place largely in London during the 1980s. Leroy was always instilled with a rigid sense of right and wrong, largely due to his father Kenneth (Steve Toussaint). Motivated not just by the racism he sees directed at his father by police, but also a desire to change the system, Leroy joins the force. Applying to the Metropolitan Police, his goal is to change their racist attitudes from the inside. As one might expect, that does not prove easily done.
Determined to change things from within, Leroy is a star Academy cadet, as well as a highlighted recruit for the department, which is seeking out diverse policemen. His wife Gretl (Antonia Thomas) is proud of him, even if Kenneth considers the career a betrayal. However, once an MP, he witnesses the racism, both casual and overt, that’s directed his way. Still desiring to be a force for change, he also begins to understand the rage that Kenneth has long felt, leading to a new sense of understanding between the men.
John Boyega has never been better than he is here. Boyega gives Leroy Logan all of the righteous indignation, as well as the literal dignity, that the real Logan surely had. By making this a good man looking to do right, but one with a temper, as well as someone who won’t tolerate foolishness, Boyega gives him all of the life that’s necessary here. Not only is he strong, Steve Toussaint is a bundle of rage as the elder Logan. Their dueling notions about the world come to an interesting conclusion at the end of the film, elevating both of their performances.
Steve McQueen clearly identifies with Logan, which feeds into John Boyega’s turn. McQueen’s direction again showcases all of his standard practices, while the screenplay he co-wrote with Courttia Newland manages an efficiency that we don’t always see out of the filmmaker. Telling this story in under 90 minutes requires a touch not everyone has, but McQueen is able to tinker with his normal pacing in order to achieve this.
Red, White and Blue deliberately leaves you wanting more. The ending is abrupt, stopping where the third act of another movie would just be getting started. However, the film ends at the perfect moment, with McQueen making a specific point with the choice. Sure, more of a crusading John Boyega would be fulfilling, but that’s not the story being told here. When we leave him, only the first step has been taken, with many more obviously still needed.
NYFF has been lucky enough to screen McQueen’s Small Axe anthology this year, and all three titles have been among the fest’s top tier of movies. Red, White and Blue may seem like the most traditional flick of the lot, but it’s also, at least for my money, the best. Small Axe is something to look forward to when it hits Amazon Prime Video, and this one is definitely a highlight.