Years from now, what images will best conjure 2020? The masks, of course, the stripped-out cities. But also, you suspect, John Boyega. In June, during worldwide Black Lives Matter protests, the presence of the Star Wars actor in London’s Hyde Park — raw and tearful — became a symbol of a tumultuous summer. Now he is at the centre of Red, White and Blue, part of the year’s defining film event, Steve McQueen’s anthology Small Axe. After the honeyed rush of Lovers Rock, the film returns to the stuff of series opener Mangrove — British law and order, the poisoned history therein. This time, the tale is told from the inside. No, wait. Not quite. From in between.
Boyega plays Leroy Logan, who in the early 1980s became one of Britain’s vanishingly few black police officers. The film is bound up too with his father, Kenneth (Steve Toussaint). A stickler for the values of the mother country as taught to him in Jamaica, he raised his son in London to be vehemently law-abiding, “more British than the British”. The boy does well, growing up to become a forensic scientist. Yet for all his diligence, the lab is not his calling. He wants to be a visible role model, a beacon for the community. Where better to do that — for all the tempted fate — than as a Metropolitan Police officer?
If Logan yearns to be seen as an agent for change, the 1980s Met is so very nearly the perfect stage. There is an urgent need for transformation, after all. And within its hierarchy, we find a strong, sincere desire for Logan to be seen. McQueen is sparing with period trappings (office furniture, Mr Byrite suits). The era is also pinpoint-specific — the exact moment the force realised there was such a thing as public image and theirs was a problem.
Logan is instantly made the face of a recruitment drive aimed at the black community. This is history, yes — but you can also take the film as being about decades of stuttering progress since, not only in the British police but corporations everywhere, for whom inclusion has simply meant photo opportunities. Actual change always goes missing. Blend in, Logan is soon advised by a superior officer, staff room conversations ending when he enters.
While Logan is the type to deal with adversity front and centre, McQueen often puts key detail at the edge of the frame: sharkish patrol cars, the smirking faces of supposed colleagues. His touch can be gossamer, a beautifully telling scene unfolding over Scrabble, a tiny knowing nod to Boyega’s Star Wars celebrity. But the weight of the story is vast. In a Hollywood telling, of course Logan would change the world, the score swelling orchestrally. Red, White and Blue is a film of silences — the sound of limbo.
On BBC1 in the UK on November 29 and iPlayer thereafter; on Amazon Prime in the US from December 4