‘Small Axe’ is an anthology comprised of five original films directed by Steve McQueen and set from the late 1960s to the mid-1980s, telling personal stories from London’s West Indian community, whose lives have been shaped by their own force of will despite rampant racism and discrimination. This title is derived from the African proverb, “If you are the big tree, we are the small axe,” later popularized by Bob Marley & the Wailers.
A shot is seen a couple of times in “Red, White and Blue,” featuring a character staring at a wall for a while. He’s slightly off-center, and there’s no need for dialogue. As we watch this take place, the reasoning is clear. There’s disbelief and acknowledgment taking place at the same time. It has everything to do with the way the system has been designed to hold people back. However, it’s not that there a lack of trying and even the smallest semblance of hope that things can actually change.
“Red, White and Blue” was one of the three entries in Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology to debut at various film festivals. I’m still a little lost on whether this was intended to be the closing entry or the third, as it is now being positioned. Regardless, it’s not just the strength that once again comes from the tremendous filmmaking on display, along with the committed and terrific performance from star John Boyega (doing his best work yet). There’s also the power of this story to be considered.
Set in the mid-80s, “Red, White, and Blue” focuses on the true story of Leroy Logan (Boyega), a forensic scientist-turned-police officer. Leroy joined the police force based on his own childhood dreams of becoming one, along with an incident leading to his father, Ken (Steve Toussaint), being brutally beaten by two policemen. In Leroy’s mind, being the exceptional man he is (he passes every test with flying colors), he believes he can work within the system to change racist attitudes.
Part of the excellence that comes from McQueen’s efforts as the director of this series is how he gives the audience the benefit of the doubt and treats them as intelligent viewers. It’s not just a matter of subverting expectations when choosing ways to depict certain scenes. There’s the understanding of how showing and not telling will do so much of the work when you have all the right pieces to utilize.
The opening scene features a much younger Leroy, in his school uniform, being picked on by two policemen, who claim there’s been a series of burglaries, and this child somehow fits the description. When Leroy’s father arrives and immediately takes his boy away, it leads to a talk providing about the most needed as far as context. It’s the equivalent of a “talk” that many black parents have with their children about how to behave around police officers to stay out of trouble that has somehow found them.
Watching Leroy’s father be beaten later on doesn’t require much work from the audience to piece together why. Seeing a respectable black man present logic and reason only brings out further aggression. While that may be uncomfortable to witness, let alone see as an indictment on a group said to protect and serve, it’s a lot worse to the victims of these sorts of scary situations based on the fact that these things do happen (and are only just recently being easily recorded and reported on).
Once Leroy enters the force, the story takes a turn towards the predictable. That doesn’t make this film lesser, just filled with dread concerning the inevitable actions taken to put Leroy “in his place” as the first black patrolman in his area. While we see him as a charismatic guy, with a wife and a kid on the way, there’s a lot of his father within him. Ken is a smart, stern man, with plenty of love he can give, but also a lot of anger.
The events of “Red, White and Blue” make it difficult for Leroy to hold onto his cool. As a result, thanks to both the blatant racism found in his new role, along with the disapproval of his father, who knows oh so well just how difficult it would be for his son to actually make a dent in the force, Leroy does face major difficulties in performing not only at his best but as one who the other officers can team up with willingly.
After the lightness of “Lovers Rock,” this is a feature playing with an atmosphere similar in spirit to “Mangrove.” Leroy’s journey comes from a place of effort that is perhaps misguided but seen as one with unfortunate consequences. One can do some research to see what eventually came of Leroy and his efforts on the police force, but at least he had plenty to do as a consultant for this film.
Along with whatever he offered, McQueen and co-writer Courttia Newland find the right ways to dig into this story. Once again, McQueen’s efforts to cinematically realize what is taking place are clear and exceptionally handled. There is an authenticity that goes a long way in humanizing all of the drama and making it ring with all the right kind of tension, only broken up so often to remind the viewers of Leroy’s loving homelife (despite the blowback from his father). McQueen also knows how to properly equip this film’s soundtrack, as Al Green songs are constantly in the air.
That leads to the fitting question of “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart?” Unlike the other entries so far, “Red, White and Blue” is an angrier film that doesn’t allow for a clear conclusion. It throws a character with bright eyes into a pit that he wants to make better. Is he entirely disillusioned, though? A final scene between him and his father suggests there’s room to fix things, but at what cost? It’s a good question that still may not have an answer. Still, wheels of change are able to turn.