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Assimilation or Subversion in Steve McQueen’s ‘Red, White, and Blue’

The third installment in McQueen’s five-part anthology series tells a story of police brutality through the lens of a father-son relationship

Prime Video/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The third installment of Steve McQueen’s five-part anthology series, Small Axe, about West Indian communities in 20th-century London, debuted Friday on Amazon. The latest film, Red, White, and Blue, is a story about racial tensions in policing in the late 1980s.

The film centers on a real-life character named Leroy Logan, a young, Black research scientist who, in the early 1980s, decided to join the London Metropolitan Police. Leroy, portrayed in the film by John Boyega, was encouraged by his mother to pursue a career change, but his father, Ken, resents it. From the film’s opening scene, Ken saddles Leroy with his distrust, which we later learn is borne out by a fateful encounter in Islington, London, when two white patrolmen ticket Ken for a trumped-up parking violation and then beat him to the ground. Ken sues, rebuffing the department’s settlement offers, determined to confront the two officers face-to-face in court. Leroy confronts the injustice and his father’s subsequent legal crusade with utmost ambivalence. Leroy and Ken don’t so much argue about the biases and brutality which disgraces the police, but around them. Pointedly, Leroy never defends the police, but rather insists on reforming the profession “from the inside.”

So, Red, White, and Blue hinges on the classic contest within minority groups: assimilation versus subversion. “I applied to combat negative attitudes,” Leroy tells the police panel reviewing his application. The interview reeks of mutual distrust. The senior officer asks Leroy whether he or his family have ever had the misfortune of dealing with the police, and Leroy declines to mention his father’s active lawsuit. The white senior officer tells Leroy, “Attempts to interact with your people have fallen quite short”—he seems to regard Leroy as little more than a political token. For as much as Leroy strives to be “the bridge,” he spares no condescension for the institution he’s joining. “I’m not here to make friends,” Leroy announces to his incoming classmates. He does at least make nice with a young Pakistani officer named Asif, who likewise struggles to ingratiate himself within the department, but Leroy makes far more enemies among his white colleagues. His race marks him for ridicule, his excellence marks him for envy and sabotage, and his irreverence marks him for worse.

But Ken, portrayed by Steve Toussaint, suffers the gravest indignities in Red, White, and Blue. He’s a proud man whose self-esteem derives from his self-reliance and skepticism. For Ken, Leroy’s recruitment to the police force plays out as a cruel prank on a decent father. For Leroy, Ken’s indignation reeks of hypocrisy from a first-gen, working-class Jamaican immigrant father who raised a successful son. Their respective accents clash. In one argument, Leroy reminds Ken, “You wanted us more British than the British!” In each of the three McQueen Small Axe features released, including previous films Mangrove and Lovers Rock, white onlookers form a resentful perimeter around the Afro-Caribbean enclaves that sprouted in post-war London. In Red, White, Blue, Ken plays the radical, Leroy plays the moderate, both men circling the general distrust which pits their neighborhood against the police.

That said, I fear I’m making Red, White, and Blue out to be some wonkish policy explainer or, worse yet, a screed, if only because the movie slides so neatly into the current discourse about police abolitionism. There are brief moments when McQueen’s allegory gets a little too explicit, instructive, or overdetermined; the white police recruits and their superiors form a single, monotonous meta-villain in an otherwise considerate character drama as far as the Black characters and Asif are concerned. It’s a disparity which, to my mind, hindered the earlier anthology series, Lovecraft Country, led by Misha Green, where several actors cast across several regions and several hours of television are all, essentially, playing the same white, bigoted cop over and over again. In Red, White, and Blue, though, Leroy strives (however hopelessly) to complicate this caricature on the caricature’s behalf. Leroy knows the police assaulted his father, but he imagines his very presence on the force might discourage such bigotry and de-escalate future encounters. He’s naive but never decisively misguided in McQueen’s telling. In real life, Leroy Logan accomplished a great deal in his nearly 30-year career with the London Metropolitan Police; his memoir, Closing Ranks, was published just a few months ago.

In Red, White, and Blue, Leroy and Ken agree to disagree about the police. They hold the line but lose the stridency that once reinforced their respective positions. They’re left together at a kitchen table, discussing self-determination and the slow progress between Leroy’s patrols.