There are very few things that Lovers Rock and Red, White and Blue have in common with each other. While they are both directed by Steve McQueen and co-written by McQueen and Courttia Newland and deal with the experience of Black citizens in Great Britain, that’s where the similarities end. They are different in scope, story, and tone, but they are equally powerful and important stories. Newland knew that these films couldn’t be told in the same fashion, and we owe him a debt of thanks for his beautiful writing.
Lovers Rock is a beautiful ode to a night out that Black people need to blow off steam. It’s a night that people look forward to. It’s a time to celebrate. I am in love with that film because of the music that Newland worked on with McQueen and the ease it has on camera. For Red, White and Blue, Newland had to flex his research muscles to tell the story of Leroy Logan and his father. It is a story about a man trying to fix the system from the inside, but its heart beats because of the bond between John Boyega and Steve Toussaint’s characters. Newland and McQueen show us Leroy constantly observing–he watches training and sits before councils who tell him that they are excited for him to be the face of the force–and the writing makes us wonder how he is handling the emotions of being so deep in this.
These two films being released one right after the other shows how strong Newland is as a writer. He brings a deep love to his writing whether it is about a budding romance or infiltrating the police force.
Awards Daily: Lovers Rock and Red, White and Blue are very different from one another–stylistically and narratively. Were you intending on doing two films that were so different in tone and scope?
Courttia Newland: I did and I really hoped that Steve [McQueen] did. We didn’t really discuss things in those terms because we were solely focused on story. They just lend themselves to different voices because there’s no way that you can tell those two stories in the same way. What I imagined when I started writing, I thought of an abstract, arthouse movie about Black culture. I was hoping Steve had the same vision (laughs). We wrote Red, White and Blue together and I can’t remember how many drafts we were in when we started Lovers Rock.
AD: Oh yeah?
CN: With Lovers Rock, Steve is very good at giving specific writings notes but also keeping the door open. I think I kind of earned his trust. He would say, ‘When you attack it, this is what I want to bring to the story. But do what you need to do.’ I remember him telling me to have fun with it and he talked a lot about rituals. Rituals of how a night out like that is structured. We came from a place of common understanding about what happens on nights like this. Naturally, as a writer, it needed to look and feel completely different than something like Red, White and Blue.
AD: I wanted to talk about the music in Lovers Rock because it feels like this could be adapted into a stage show whenever things open back up again. Talk to me about the conversations about the music in the script that was going to be incorporated into the finished film?
CN: From the day that we had the first conversations about Lovers Rock, we were talking about “Silly Games.” Obviously, to loads of us in the room that are from that background, that’s an iconic tune. You know about Dennis Bovell. You knew he was in the movie, right?
AD: I did read that, yes. That’s so cool that he’s in it.
CN: There’s no more to be said about how important that is. When Steve played it for everyone, we knew it was going to be powerful. I think the early drafts “Silly Games” was just in it. The DJ plays it and it’s the center of the script and they connect. I remember Steve then wanted to put the entire song it. He literally wanted me to put the entire song–all of the lyrics–on the page because he thought that should be an extended moment. We went back and forth to what happened during the song but then we settled on what we wanted. For the other songs, they were between the two of us. I knew I couldn’t get everything in, but I had a Spotify playlist that really informed me of a lot.
AD: I’d love to hear that. You should release it!
AD: Leroy Logan is still alive.
CN: He is.
AD: I wouldn’t consider Red, White and Blue a biopic but it is about a pivotal moment in his life. He wrote a book recently that I want to check out. How much did you talk directly to Leroy?
CN: Leroy says that he talked to me about it more than his wife.
CN: He was on the end of a phone whenever I needed. He came into the room and spoke to us for a number of hours, and at that time I didn’t know I would be writing that script. He spoke to all of us and shared his story. It was mind-blowing. Steve asked me to write it and I knew why. I was speaking a lot about my relationship with my father at the time. It’s really about a father and son and I thought Steve was smart to do that. Even though I was intimidated to write it. We met Leroy again in the writer’s room and told me he was available whenever I needed him. I’d DM him on Twitter and then we’d call each other and spend hours talking. All the details that are in there, came from Leroy. I spoke to Leee [John] and Gretl, his wife.
AD: One of my favorite parts of the film is when Leroy is in the car with his father on the way to training and they aren’t speaking to one another. Leroy gets out and then his father gets out. I think it’s a brilliant moment because we don’t think the scene is going to play out that way and it also reinforces the bond between them without a lot of dialogue.
CN: That’s my favorite scene. That and the dinner scene.
AD: Red, White and Blue ends with two conversations where Leroy is absorbing information. Gretl tells him that he’s not doing the job that he originally set out to do, and his father talks to him a lot about change. How that change doesn’t happen quickly. Why did you want to have those conversations live so closely to one another?
CN: Leroy went into it with this kind of evangelical idea. Leroy is good at everything. He never fails. He wanted a PhD, so he went out and got a PhD. He wanted to be a great dancer and a man of the community and he was that. Failure wasn’t in his vocabulary. In his eyes, he thought he failed but it’s a re-evaluation of his circumstances. He had to modify his expectations to stay in this job. It’s two sides of the same coin. He’s got to stick it out and stay in it and find his resolve and the other side is his father saying that change doesn’t happen overnight. I think they go together in a sense. Things will change eventually, but he might not see it happen.
AD: I kept wondering about his personal expectations. I never wanted to say that Leroy was naïve, but things keep getting worse and worse. That locker room scene is so tense and that leads up to those two conversations at the end.
CN: Psychologically they are really complex. The allegory of the Black British experience is different for people. Some people go the Mangrove route or they find their own enclave like in Lovers Rock. For Leroy, he wanted to be part of the system and he didn’t realize the system wasn’t going to change. That’s so true for our experience living in this country. We want the country to accept us and we want it to be a better place. Will it ever accept us? We don’t know. We have to survive and carry on and be ourselves. I think it’s going to speak to a lot of people. It will be painful, but I think it will resonate.
Lovers Rock is available on Amazon now. Red, White and Blue debuts on Amazon on December 4.