As a director, Steven McQueen’s go-to attribute is thoughtful repurposing. In fact, he’s nearly perfected it. He takes stories we’ve seen before, about slavery, about racially charge court battles, and gives them a fresh perspective that resonates as true, to both Black audiences and others. So like Mangrove, Red, White and Blue isn’t an ambitious film per se, it’s more McQueen’s interpretation of what is needed to make a story about racial issues we’ve seen before more effective, down to the smallest detail, in tactfully handling the racism his characters face.
McQueen’s hand in Red, White and Blue, however, feels less essential than 12 Years a Slave or even Mangrove. The true story of Leroy Logan (John Boyega), a young forensic scientist turned superintendent of London’s Metropolitan Police Force in the early 1980s, the film is a straightforward biopic that smartly tackles some heady issues but puts forward the more typical narrative features of race biopics. Much screen time is devoted to Leroy being harassed and passed on for promotions at the hands of his white colleagues and superiors, when the actual most emotionally charged aspect McQueen depicts of the subject’s life is the relationship between an unlawfully discriminated against Black man, by the police, of course, and his son who wants to join said police force.
Steve Toussaint plays Leroy’s father, and through his limited screen time over the 80-minute film, he’s able to convey an incredibly complex emotional journey of anger and a buried desire to support his son. Boyega admittedly runs away with this one, though. Eclipsing his undoubtedly charming work in the newest Star Wars trilogy by a mile, the young actor’s performance here is incredibly controlled and precise. He allows small emotional beats to soar, such as visiting an old schoolteacher of his while trying to question a few kids. It’s a dynamic, effortless turn that will no doubt raise industry and also public perception as to what kind of work Boyega is going to excel at in his post-Star Wars career.
The film he carries, on the other hand, is a little more simplistic. Sharing scripting duties with Courttia Newland, McQueen’s exploration of Leroy’s impact over a short amount of time in his community and family doesn’t seemingly strive to be much more than Leroy’s story plain and simple. At that, Red, White and Blue is a successful piece of cinema, but only just. Compared to the other Small Axe entries thus far, especially the superb Lover’s Rock (a film that, even just a few weeks out from it, feels like McQueen’s magnum opus), it doesn’t feel like the director is adding much to the conversation of what racial biopics are and have been for decades.
Pacing wise, McQueen does still prove masterful, as he did with the 70-minute Lover’s Rock. Red, White and Blue moves quickly while still allowing what emotional beats there are to land (the final scene makes a great case for the film as a whole). But 80 minutes is short for a biopic, and while usually these films need to be trimmed down, here it feels like there simply wasn’t much more story about this turbulent period in London’s racial history and Leroy’s life. Having that economic approach to any story is smart, but here it feels more like McQueen is checking an idea off of a list. As this idea relates to the other Small Axe films screened at NYFF this year, it ranks as the weakest. For Boyega, however, the film is a resounding show of talent and strength the points to a bright future for one of our most passionate movie stars.