In Red, White and Blue, the latest installment in Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series (Mangrove was the first and Lovers Rock is the second), John Boyega plays Leroy Logan, the son of Caribbean immigrants living in London. His father, Kenneth (Steve Toussaint), is a sort of call-and-response to Mangrove’s Frank Crichlow, an immigrant worn down by constant racial harassment from the police. Kenneth has ensured Leroy has a traditional British upbringing, complete with university education and music lessons. And it pays off as Leroy is a research scientist, though he hopes to become a forensic scientist, a dream complicated by his father’s distrust and disdain for the police. “Don’t bring the police to my yard,” Ken tells a young Leroy. It’s one of only two rules he has. Still, encouraged by his aunt, a police liaison officer, Leroy applies to join the Metropolitan Police. He decides to go through with police training just as his father is recovering from serious injuries suffered in a police brutality incident. Obviously, Leroy’s decision is going to have some repercussions.
Red dives into those repercussions, examining only the first year of Leroy’s 30-year career with the Met. In reality, he ended up becoming a superintendent and being a leading figure of reform within the Met, but in Red he is just a rookie struggling with condemnation from his community—teens on his beat call him “oreo” and “coconut”—and racism from his peers on the force. The Met is happy to have Leroy pose for a publicity campaign for recruitment, but his precinct chief isn’t interested in promoting him up the ranks, and when he is involved in a high-stakes pursuit, his fellow officers do not come to his aid. On top of all of that, his father won’t speak to him, because Leroy has now become part of the very system that harmed and humiliated Ken.
Leroy wants to bring change from the inside, to focus on community engagement and reorient policing in London to be part of the community, not at war with it. But Red makes it clear how tall an order that really is, how many obstacles must be overcome, and the emotional and psychological toll it takes on Leroy. His determination is palpable, thanks to Boyega’s ferociously focused performance—a career best—but so is his exhaustion and the doubts that creep in when it seems impossible that he will ever make any headway. And Red also shows how impossible it is, no matter how good the intentions, to truly change a system like the Met, which is maybe not entirely made up of racist bullies but is certainly very welcoming to them. (Indeed, for all that the real Leroy Logan achieved personally, in 1999 the McPherson report still found the Met guilty of institutional racism.) Leroy has the best of intentions, but he is still sucked into the machine, he still ends up striking a suspect and yelling, “Stop resisting!” He is clearly not as bad as the worst of his fellow officers, and he is motivated by a genuine desire to serve his community, but Red is not interested in sugar-coating the oppressive nature of policing.
This is a nuanced and intimate look at what it means to be a reformer. Leroy is isolated, insulted, assaulted, and backstabbed, mostly by the people, be they family or friend, who should most support him. And it is clear that whatever reforms he may achieve, the greater machinery of policing will likely not change. Red, White and Blue shows us a good man going through a crucible for all the right reasons and yet asking, Is it worth it? Of course it is, because evil cannot go unchallenged and there cannot be change without someone first demanding it. But what is the real cost of trying to reform these oppressive, white supremacist systems? And why must it be the burden of the oppressed community to fix it? The Met’s solution to their racism problem—pointed out in Mangrove—is to increase diversity in the ranks, but Red shows how short-sighted that solution really is. Until there is sweeping institutional change, diversity efforts are no more than the publicity ads in which Leroy appears (and a reference to Star Wars adds a meta-layer of Boyega’s experience being a token Black character in Hollywood, another oppressive machine that treats diverse hiring as the singular solution to an institutional racism problem). But these things are just a band-aid on a gaping wound, and Red, White and Blue’s question is a haunting one. IS it worth it? Is it?
Red, White and Blue is now streaming on Amazon Prime.