Small Axe: Red, White and Blue, 2020.
Directed by Steve McQueen.
Starring John Boyega, Steve Toussaint, Antonia Thomas, Tyrone Huntley, Nathan Vidal, Joy Richardson and Mark Harrigan.
Leroy Logan (John Boyega) joins the police force after his father (Steve Toussaint) is a victim of racial brutality.
Steve McQueen tackles his subjects head on with no sugar coating. Whether we are talking Irish hunger strikers, sexual addiction or one man’s journey to emancipation that approach is often brutally direct. With Small Axe, a first foray into television, his intent comes into sharp focus through an exploration of cultural and institutional attitudes to colour. Spanning two decades from the early Sixties through to the late Eighties, Small Axe celebrates the West Indian community whilst addressing issues of generational racism and fear.
In Red, White and Blue, film three in this anthology of five, John Boyega’s Leroy Logan takes centre stage. University educated, rooted in the forensic sciences and destined to spend his life behind a desk, one event changes that forever. Following an unprovoked assault on his father by policemen, he sets about trying to engender change from within by responding to a recruitment drive.
What follows is systematic racism and blatant harassment within an institution where such things are subtly encouraged. Beyond the ignorant stereotypical racists who goad, intimidate and isolate Steve McQueen is also intent on examining how Leroy’s choices influence a wider community. Friends and family become openly hostile while his work colleagues continue undermining him purely based on skin colour. Writer-director Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje did something similar with his film Farming, but focused on skinhead culture rather than the police force.
In both examples we are not dealing with works of fiction but genuine grassroots discrimination depicted by those involved. Neither is more powerful than the other and both carry an undeniable sense of authenticity, which only gains credence as these characters draw us in. Red, White and Blue comes with no frills, no gloss and John Boyega on defiant form. Steve Toussaint as his father Kenneth Logan also exudes a palpable sense of malcontent, while their scenes together are often heart wrenching.
There is an unrelenting brutality and stark kitchen sink realism on display here, which smacks of Alan Beasdale and channels Jimmy McGovern at his most caustic. Red White and Blue is no bed of roses and also remains reminiscent of The Red Riding Trilogy, itself another powerhouse anthology. What Steve McQueen has done here is demonstrate a mastery of the medium, bending it to his will and offering up another savage slice of social commentary without compromising on any level.
It offers no resolutions, no happy endings or sense of progress. All his fly on the wall docudrama acknowledges is a struggle, both for equality, cultural identity and change. His implication through Red, White and Blue at least is that these issues never go away. Indoctrinated attitudes, narrow minded nepotism and conspicuous favouritism still exist alongside veiled discrimination. Just because no one talks about these things never means they go away, making drama like this is essential viewing. Through Small Axe this film maker addresses universal themes with a global impact, making it all the more poignant by examining five individual experiences during an era of volatility and potent change.
Small Axe premieres on the BBC November 15th and through Amazon Prime Video from November 20th.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★