“Big change… that is a slow-turning wheel”, says Ken Logan (Steve Touissant) in the final scene of Red, White and Blue. He says it to his son, Leroy (John Boyega) and the two men share a moment together where they both acknowledge the burden of responsibility they carry, the crosses they both have to bear. Leroy’s cross is that of stalwart resilience as he fights against institutional racism deeply seated within the police force he is a part of. Ken’s cross is that of unwavering support for his son’s quest for change. They both realize the gravity of their undertaking as they raise their glasses before the scene cuts to black.
Similarly to Mangrove, Steve Mcqueen’s film continues exploring the theme of Davidian struggle in a more direct fashion than Lovers Rock, hence reinforcing the tone of the entire Small Axe miniseries. In Red, White and Blue he introduces the audience to Leroy Logan, a Londoner of Jamaican descent who became a police officer and later the face of a recruitment campaign aimed at increasing diversity in this racially monolithic institution. Naturally, the decision to pull Logan’s character into the limelight, where he surely deserves to be, promises a specific kind of a story that many viewers might already be familiar with. The film is a biographically-tethered distillate of dramatic beats and themes that have been exploited by many other filmmakers – some better than others – aimed to convey Logan’s life story as a passionate quest for justice against the relentless tides of systemic oppression. Therefore, it wouldn’t be necessarily surprising for some viewers to find certain aspects of this narrative occasionally brushing shoulders against cliché.
However, dismissing the film based on this assertion would be highly damaging to what McQueen is trying to achieve. Yes, he is relying on familiar templates that seem lifted from prestige Hollywood award-baiting pictures, but he is doing it incidentally. He is not reaching into his bag of narrative shorthand to adorn Leroy Logan’s story with, but rather to Logan’s own biography. Logan did after all introduce himself in police school as someone who wasn’t after making friends, but after changing the institution from within. He did also express his personal desire for the look of the police force to reflect the community it was serving. Local black kids did call him ‘Judas’ and ‘coconut’. His fellow officers did vandalize his locker. He was ostracized and excluded. These things happened to him and I am sure McQueen was perfectly aware of what it would look like when adapted to the screen.
Besides obviously bringing attention to the life and sacrifice of Leroy Logan, Red, White and Blue is making a crucial point with regard to the seemingly tattered template it is using. Clichés are clichés for a reason and – as this film illustrates – they do have their roots in reality. What is more, by peppering Logan’s story with familiar dramatic beats McQueen also hinted at a very distinct possibility that Logan wasn’t an exception. He is but one of many more police officers who bore this cross of cultural change together with him and the film is doing its absolute best to salute them all.
Therefore, Red, White and Blue should be seen as much more than a biopic of any kind. In fact, it is a moralistic parable that leverages the strengths of this narrative template and sends a powerful message to the world at large. Yes, the wheel of change is slow to turn, but it turns nonetheless. And it does so only thanks to brave souls, such as Leroy Logan, who commit their lives to the arduous task of actually making it turn. And McQueen’s film illustrates this idea with great style.
For want of a better phrase, Red, White and Blue is a bedtime story about exasperation and anger built to filter directly into the viewer’s cerebral cortex thanks to the familiarity of the narrative tools it relies upon. While it is nowhere near as relentless in its attempt to unpick the racism ingrained in the fabric of the British society as Mangrove, it is still just as powerful as any other Steve McQueen picture. If anything, it reinforces the idea that McQueen’s storytelling is a bridge between Spike Lee and Michael Haneke: a truly powerful concoction of directorial restraint and political bravado.
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