“Red, White and Blue,” Episode 3 of Steve McQueen’s Small Axe (season 1) December 29, 2020, Amazon Prime. It’s the early 1980s, and Leroy Logan (John Boyega) is the British-born son of Afro-Caribbean migrants in this based-on-a-true-story film from Steve McQueen. He grew up in a profoundly proper working-class home with a strict, hardworking, truck-driver father, and, despite all the racist and class barriers of the English system, he received his BSc. in applied (forensic) biology but something is very wrong. He wants to really change things for the immigrant community, and he follows his heart to become a member of the London police force. He pursues this ambition, this mission, even as his father Ken Logan’s (Steve Toussaint) experiences a brutal beating from London cops. And he continues to pursue this, believing he can change the system from within. The difficulties with that model become ever more apparent as he tries to connect with the community, to ‘save’ some youth from the dangers of the street, to challenge police brutality in his station house, to be treated fairly for promotion, and to be protected by white fellow cops when faced with horrible danger in the field. All the while his family situation remains a challenge and the contradictions of his position continue to vex and torment him. And that is what we see.
Boyega is excellent: solid, angry, about to explode but controlled. He gets this man. Toussaint as his father is allowed to show much more of the emotional pain, the cost, the despair, the tensions. He’s super as Ken Logan. They make the film a thoughtful and emotionally significant examination of the complexities of British institutional racism and the Afro-Caribbean experience.
But where does it go after this? Does it actually go somewhere? Well, Brits probably know that he remained on the force, became a renowned officer, was founder and chair of the Black Police Association, and eventually retired as Superintendent of the Metropolitan Police in 2013. In 2000 he is made an MBE (Member of the Excellent Order of the British Empire) for his contributions to policing. But the Metropolitan Police and British policing in general remains infested with racists and racist ideology. He was hounded with false corruption charges that were disproved as racist attempts to discredit him. Like his father’s assault case, these charges never went to court. He was fully exonerated and received L100,000 in compensation.
We don’t learn those things in “Red, White and Blue.” I think that’s a real flaw in the presentation of a moment that ends with his understanding of the relentless racism of the institution he is attempting to both change and serve. A written postscript is especially crucial for Americans who might or might not follow up their TV fix with further exploration.
And while this might seem unimportant, Sir Steven (McQueen, yes, he was knighted in 2020 for Services to Film) saying Logan had a Ph.D. in biology (it’s dropped without contradiction by Ken Logan as “Him have a PhD.!” in the film) is just untrue. In 2013 he received an honorary Ph.D. from the University of East London for his work in policing and against racism. That’s the same school he received his BSc from in 1980. ( See his online resume). And that’s fine, but why claim more? It’s gratuitous and undercuts the film with false grandiosity. Who he is and what he did are more than enough to make this film and to pay attention to this man. There’s no need for overblown falsehoods that are easily discredited. One question here: am I misinterpreting the Jamaican English here? Is “him have” also the equivalent of “he will have?” If so, that aspirational view makes a great deal of sense from this angry and anguished father who has just suffered terrible abuse at the hands of the Metropolitan Police.
The music in this one is completely different from the other two, showing point of origin and class of the different groups than in Lovers Rock, which is just a few years before this one begins. McQueen is doing very interesting things with the different sorts of music in different periods and for different groups and subgroups. Very informative and creative.