Over the past few weeks, Steve McQueen has once again taken the world of filmmaking by storm. Coming into the festival season with an impressive three installments under his name, his work on Small Axe has begun to draw comparisons to Krzysztof Kieślowski’s legendary Dekalog series, signaling the start of a bold new chapter in the ever-improving medium’s history. The final entry of the three films screening at the 58th edition of the New York Film Festival as a part of Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology, Red, White, and Blue tells the story of Leroy Logan (John Boyega), a young man who decides to become a member of the London Metropolitan Police Force with the goal of diminishing the fundamental racism present in the inner workings of the force.
Timely as ever, McQueen, along with co-writer Courttia Newland, is able to create another extremely relevant narrative from an unconventional and little-explored perspective in an otherwise heartbreakingly cruel world. While Leroy is motivated to quit his well-paying job as a research scientist and join the force after his father is unnecessarily harmed by the brutal and cold police force, many of his friends begin to view him as a “traitor, and even his own father (Steven Toussaint) is forced to grapple with the morality of Leroy’s decision. On the other side, his colleagues on the force aren’t accepting of him either, leaving him without backup, ignoring his merits, and even vandalizing his locker with hurtful racial slurs. Only finding a like mind in a Pakistani cohort (Assad Zaman) who must go through the same challenges as himself of being ridiculed both in and out of the institution, Leroy’s journey as he comes to terms with his actions is a tragic one that is beautifully written by McQueen and Newland, although it would have benefitted from some extra minutes to explore more of the aftermath of his journey, ending on a thematically cohesive but narratively abrupt note.
Much has to be said about the central performances that truly bring the film to life as well. Steven Toussaint shines in his role as Leroy’s father, conflicted but accepting of his son’s brave choices. However, no one stands out more than John Boyega here, in what is the definition of a truly award-worthy turn. As opposed to being one part of an ensemble-driven piece akin to Lover’s Rock or Mangrove, here, all the weight is put on Boyega’s shoulders, who is able to successfully showcase his maturity to lead a film and proving he is well deserving of the future lead roles he may have been robbed of doing after being unfairly relegated to diminishing parts in recent blockbuster pictures. The exchanges between Boyega and Toussaint, which are the secondary focus of the film, serve as a platform for them to play off of each other and show the depths of their talent as they struggle to come to terms with their predicament. Yet, as the film focuses on the trajectory of Leroy’s disillusionment with the force, Leroy’s journey is one that would not work without the emotional brilliance of John Boyega’s turn.
Despite this being the third of McQueen’s five directorial efforts in this year, behind the director’s chair, McQueen is impressively able to inject a fresh take into the material. Differing from the joyfulness and fluidity of Lover’s Rock as well as the urgency and vividness of Mangrove, with Red, White, and Blue, he delivers a much calmer and meditative picture that still holds the necessary impact of the previous installments. Straying from the striking color pallets and choosing to go with tighter aspect ratio, McQueen works in tandem with cinematographer Shabier Kirchner to create a much more restrained atmosphere. One that perhaps lacks the gripping qualities of his best work, but indubitably results on a greater focus on a character-driven narrative that is able to thoughtfully explore the moral conflict at hand, and shows much maturity from Steve McQueen himself.
Red, White, and Blue is a well-made effort from Steve McQueen that cements Small Axe’s status as one of the best auteur-driven anthologies of our time. A timely and important tale of disillusionment that features a career-defining performance from John Boyega, it’s restrained qualities temper its narrative impact, but result in showing a more mature and meditative facet of McQueen, aiding in the expression of a message and film that deserves to be remembered for as long as systemic inequality is a present menace to our way of life.
This review is from the 58th New York Film Festival. Red, White, and Blue will be available on Amazon Prime this November.