Watching the second film in our self-selected route through Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series, I had in my mind the strengths and shortcomings of Mangrove, the first one we saw. That film is incredibly sharp on the politics, the history, and the drama of the events it depicts, but somewhat weaker on character development and scenes of everyday life. Red, White and Blue is less a film about specific, well-documented events, and more an account of one man’s experience, so those quotidian conversations and scenarios seemed likely to be more important to it—fortunately, and probably because of the sort of narrative it is, McQueen paid considerably more attention to them in this film. Characters in Red, White and Blue aren’t activists, unlike many of the characters in Mangrove, but even allowing for that, their conversations felt a lot more plausible.
The film is the story of Leroy Logan, the son of Jamaican immigrants, who joined the Metropolitan Police Service in the early 1980s. He went on to become one of the most senior black officers, and was a founding member of the Black Police Association, retiring in 2013 as a superintendent. His career, unsurprisingly, involved some high-profile controversy, including his support for Ali Dizaei, a senior Muslim officer and BPA official, who was subject to egregious accusations of corruption over many years (before he shot himself in the foot by falsely arresting someone in a dispute over a fee for website development). Leroy Logan himself was falsely accused of corruption in relation to a hotel expenses claim of £80, in what looks to have been a pretty transparent retaliation for his support for Dizaei, and received £100 000 in damages as a result. However, all of this drama and politics is not the subject of Red, White and Blue.
The film is the story of a young man from an immigrant family who thinks he can do the most good for his community by representing it within the police force, and by attempting to bring about change from within. It’s about his experience of life in 70s and 80s Britain, his decision to join up, and his early experiences as a constable. It’s about his family life and friendships, and the impact his decision has on them. It’s about the irresolvable dialectic between resistance and assimilation, the way that political disagreements intersect with generational divides, and the loneliness of minority pioneers making a place for people like them in the institutions most implicated in their ongoing repression. Most of all, it’s about what it’s like for one young British person, growing up and making a life in a country which often treats him as an outsider, in which his father is beaten by police for the crime of seeming annoyed when he’s unjustly harassed.
Logan is called a traitor in the film, by other people of colour, and it seems likely that he experienced this in real life. His is not an easy line to walk. The police force is the enforcement arm of last resort in maintaining any number of structural injustices, not just racial ones. The steep economic inequalities that lead to harmfully differential outcomes in education, health, nutrition, mental health, employment and so on, are structured around a system of private property which legitimises and gives moral justification to the pre-existing disparities of opportunity with which we all start our path through life. The central role of the police, for all the good they can do, and all the mitigation they can provide against the worst and most violent outcomes of an unequal society, is to maintain and protect that system of private property. But if your aim is to improve the lot of your community, rather than to pursue any more lofty but less achievable political goal, isn’t the pragmatic thing to try to secure your community a stake in the system that you have to live with? It’s not an argument I think I can answer, but it’s worth noting how violently racist the conduct of the police continues to be, in many circumstances, even after decades with BAME officers in forces around the country, and major exposures of institutional misconduct such as the Macpherson Report. It is a very long and difficult struggle, which continues every day.
Red, White and Blue doesn’t neatly close its narrative on a moment of hope, or show us how the individual grit and determination of Leroy Logan brings him to a successful career as a senior officer. The note it ends on is one of ‘this shit happens every day’. Its dramatic arc leads to a place from which it is almost impossible to see the potential for change, but from which it is equally impossible to see any option other than continuing the struggle, every day, regardless of how many times you get knocked down, or how much it costs to get up again. The value of this film as a drama is that it shows us that place from a perspective that is easy to sympathise with, but which is difficult to imagine unassisted for those of us that have lived with the privilege of whiteness.
I’ve been spat at in the street, and told to fuck off when I asked someone the time, because I used to look fairly outlandish at a time when society was less tolerant of difference, so that’s where I go to when I need to get a handle on the black British experience, but that was an appearance that I could choose to forego. By not presenting us with a series of issues, or shouting political slogans at us (as Mangrove does, to an extent), but by patiently and observationally building this detailed and engaging portrait of a young man that it’s hard not to like, McQueen brings us to the moment at the film’s conclusion, where Logan shares an unhappy drink with his father, in silence. And he leaves us there. It’s the place in which Britain’s BAME communities have been abandoned for decades, the promise of equality rarely amounting to anything that resembles change. John Boyega’s performance as Leroy Logan is magnificent, as are several of the supporting roles. Actors, writers and director are rigorous in showing us not a type or an exemplar, not ‘a black British police officer’, but a particular individual, and letting us decide for ourselves what it means for them to serve under Britain’s red, white and blue flag.