The latest addition to the Small Axe series is the weakest yet, but a powerhouse lead performance makes it well worth your time
After the soaring heights reached by Mangrove and Lovers Rock, there was always a danger that Steve McQueen’s “Small Axe” anthology had nowhere to go but down. Unfortunately, this proves to be the case with Red, White and Blue, a police biopic that undoubtedly has some fantastic moments, but fails to reach up to the emotional, stylistic, and intellectual heights set by its predecessors.
This third entry into McQueen’s groundbreaking series follows the true story of Leroy Logan (John Boyega), a young black Londoner who joined the Metropolitan Police in the ‘80s in the hope of making change to the systemically racist institution from within. It was a brave, maybe naïve, choice, one that immediately put Logan at odds with his father Ken (Steve Toussaint), who had suffered a brutal beating at the hands of the police, and cast him adrift from parts of his neighbourhood and old life.
Boyega does a magnificent job of displaying Logan’s pride, fear, and tortured self-doubt as the harsh realities of spending every day in an environment designed to persecute him take their toll. It’s the best performance of Boyega’s career so far and a necessary reminder of exactly what he’s capable of after the latter two Star Wars films completely wasted his talent. He elevates the uncharacteristically thin script from McQueen and Courttia Newland, one which lacks nuance and fluency and never quite finds its rhythm.
Supporting characters barely make an impression, while much of the dialogue feels unnatural, meaning Logan’s conflicts with both the racist coppers and his dad don’t land with the weight they should. Red, White and Blue runs at a very lean 80 minutes, and really could have done with a few extra scenes to better immerse us in this world. The clunkiness even makes its way into some of the stylistic flourishes, McQueen’s trademark moments of visual poetry jarring against what is otherwise a pretty conventional TV biopic.
There is one extraordinary set piece, though. Logan, denied backup, stalks a criminal through a warehouse in a single unbroken take. It’s a moment both ostentatious and heart-in-mouth tense, but this sort of directorial mettle, so omnipresent in Mangrove and Lovers Rock, is a little harder to find in Red, White and Blue. Instead, it’s left to Boyega to single-handedly hold your attention, and he absolutely delivers – one of Britain’s most exciting young actors at the peak of his powers. Even if the film around him is a bit of a let down, it’s a performance you absolutely need to see.
Red, White and Blue is now streaming on BBC iPlayer.Where to watch