Op-Ed: How Small Axe’s ‘Red, White, and Blue’ Recontextualizes Black Policemen On Film
Ice Cube wrote one of hip-hop’s definitive protest anthems in NWA’s 1988 song “F*ck the Police”. 26 years later, Mr. Cube co-starred with Kevin Hart in 2014’s Ride Along, where he plays top officer James Payton, but that was only the first of two cop characters Cube played in 2014. The second being the 2014 sequel to 21 Jump Street, where he portrays Police Captain Dickerson in both installments. So, what changed in our society where the author of “F*ck the Police” is now openly playing lovable cop characters on screen?
The answer: Hollywood.
The industry has been grappling with how to accurately portray law enforcement on screen for decades. The LAPD-sponsored 1948 film He Walked by Night spawned the genesis of the “police procedural” genre that put the police as the de facto hero of every prominent crime story. The cop dramas and buddy comedies that ruled film and TV throughout the 80s and 90s programmed audiences to look at the police as idols and heroes to the community. And while some viewers may have brought into the hype of Hollywood’s pro-cop propaganda, folks in disenfranchised Black and Brown communities had a different perception of law enforcement.
When the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor sparked an ethical debate between the role of the “police” versus the role of the “policed”, an international outcry for racial equality immersed. Now, sweeping progressives movements like #DefundThePolice and reforming the criminal justice system are now commonplace in mainstream discussion. From the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s to the fight to end apartheid in South Africa in the 1980s, the fight against oppression is a constant struggle across the Black diaspora around the world. But one struggle that hasn’t received as much cinematic representation is the oppression of the West Indian community in Great Britain.
Amazon Prime has rolled out a collection of Small Axe films that looks at varying social injustices imposed upon the West Indian population in London – all directed and co-written by Academy Award-winner Steve McQueen. Red, White, and Blue is the newest installment that stars John Boyega as Leroy Logan, a real-life London Metropolitan police officer who joined the force after his father was attacked and beat up by a squad of cops. His mission to reform the police system from within resulted in Logan founding the Black Police Association in the UK. Co-written by Courttia Newland, the film chronicles Leroy Logan’s early days on the force and his plight of being accepted by his fellow officers.
Black acting legends like Sidney Poitier, Danny Glover, Eddie Murphy, and Will Smith all made their mainstream star turns playing police officers and detectives. Yet, between 2017’s Detroit and Steve McQueen’s Red, White, and Blue, it’s clear that John Boyega wants to take a different approach to law enforcement on film. He made headlines during the summer, as he expressed his frustration with being tied to a machine like Star Wars. In a viral GQ interview, he discusses how the studio system is not the most intuitive place for protest and dissenting authority. But for Boyega, sitting on the sidelines during civil unrest couldn’t fly. And though the movie was filmed well before the crew began making press rounds, you can see that passion for change within John Boyega’s portrayal as Leroy Logan.
He delivers a career-defining performance that is equally charismatic and emotional. Boyega’s natural swagger lends Leroy Logan a little extra sympathy from the viewer but pulls no punches on the emotion. When his character first sees his father beaten to a pulp in the hospital, we feel the rawness and pain that the Attack the Block star brings. Subsequently, in the scene where Leroy’s family discovers his new job, the quarrel between the father (Steve Toussaint) and son evokes the same intensity that those strenuous career conversations tend to be. But tragedy and hurt aren’t the only layers we see from Boyega. He flexes his range in moments of resentment towards other officers – notably when he vents in anger after they ignored his call for back-up.
Boyega’s performance might not have soared as high without the uncompromising direction of Steve McQueen. We see Leroy Logan pushed to the edge – both mentally and physically at the end of cinematographer Shabier Kirchner’s frame. The measured pace of the film makes the viewer feel like they have seen a lifetime with this character, even though you are only spending 78 minutes watching the film. The use of lengthier takes and fewer cuts strips the glossy, Hollywoodisms away. Red, White, and Blue also employs a relatively small amount of original music score – which is typically a director’s tool to manipulate emotions from the viewer. However, in this film, McQueen presents an honest, authentic look at 1980s London and the fervent display of racial injustice.
The #BlackLivesMatter era has amplified the world’s exposure to racial injustice through cell phone cameras and social media. Now we are in the age of postmodern police procedural – where authority can be called into question by the power of cinema. Steve McQueen utilizes that power throughout the entirety of the Small Axe series to show audiences the plight that various marginalized West Indian community members had to overcome. Whether it was through the courtroom drama of Mangrove or the musical enchantment of Lovers Rock, this series finds entertaining and impactful ways to highlight history that’s been long overlooked. Red, White, and Blue is no exception, as it paints an all-too-true picture of fighting within a system seeking to bring you down. Boyega provides a show-stopping performance in one of Steve McQueen’s finest directorial efforts.