Small Axe: Red, White and Blue (2020) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): Against the system he walks into

During last two days, I finally watched Steve McQueen’s movie anthology series “Small Axe”, which generated some hoopla during the recent Oscar season as receiving a bunch of nominations and awards from several major film critics associations including the LA Film Critics Association, which incidentally bestowed the Best Picture award upon it. Regardless of whether it should be regarded as cinema or TV miniseries (It may receive a number of nominations from Emmy a few months later, by the way), the anthology is another stunning achievement from McQueen, and its many powerful moments still linger on my head even at present.

The anthology mainly focuses on Black British people (of West Indian heritage, specifically) and their life and culture during the late 20th century, and its first two chapters simply knocked me down for their skillful handling of mood, story, and characters. While “Mangrove” is a tense and electrifying drama of systemic racism and injustice surrounding a small curry restaurant in Notting Hill of London, “Lovers Rock” is surprisingly tender and sensitive as observing one memorable night of music and romance, and McQueen demonstrates here that he can establish genuine romantic mood and feelings on the screen as well as Barry Jenkins.

In case of “Red, White, and Blue”, the third film of the anthology which is also based on a real-life story like “Mangrove”, McQueen returns to the harsher sides of Black British lives as shown from the opening scene. When a young black boy is merely waiting alone in front of his elementary school, two white police officers approach to him just because of their prejudice on black boys, and their attempt to frisk him without his permission is fortunately aborted when the boy’s father comes at the last minute. As he drives his son back to their home, the father reminds the son that he should never conform to any unjust demand from police officers, and we gather that the father also had some bad experiences with white police officers.

The movie subsequently moves forward to several years later, and we observe how things look hopeful and promising for that boy. As his parents hoped, Leroy Logan (John Boyega) studied hard as steadily advancing in his education course, and now he is going to be a forensic expert after receiving a doctoral degree, though he begins to wonder whether this is really what he wants to do at present – especially when a friend of his tells him that he can join the law enforcement training for becoming a police officer instead. After all, the police have been eager to show the inclusion of colored people in their system, and Leroy looks like an ideal recruit considering his many exemplary qualities including his excellent physical condition.

After consulting an aunt who has worked as a liaison for the local police, Leroy eventually decides to participate in the law enforcement training, but Leroy’s father Ken (Steve Toussaint) is not so amused by that because of a very unpleasant incident of his. Not long after he parked his truck for stopping by his frequent food truck, two white police officers approached to his truck just because they think Ken violated the parking regulations, and that soon led to Ken being savagely beaten by these two white police officers. Quite angry at this incident just like his father, Leroy becomes more determined to be the one who will change the system from within, and he accordingly comes to clash a lot with his father, who is understandably furious to learn that his promising son is going to be a police officer instead of a highly paid expert.

Anyway, Leroy begins his training with the support from others including his pregnant wife, and everything seems to go well for him right from the first day of the training. He often excels others during a series of various training sessions, and those high-ranking officers interviewing him later look impressed by his youthful idealism. Once his training is over, he is assigned to his neighborhood, and he is certainly eager to be a bridge between the police and his black community.

However, of course, Leroy soon finds himself against the wall more than once. While many black people do not trust him much due to his uniform, he also has to cope with the racism prevalent among many white officers in his precinct. At least, there is an Indian, sorry, a Pakistani police officer sympathetic to Leroy’s situation, but he has been quite tired of being mistreated and ostracized by those white officers, and we are not so surprised by his subsequent decision later in the story.

Meanwhile, Ken also becomes quite exasperated and frustrated as trying to get some justice for himself. As a guy as stubborn as his son, he is willing to go all the way for seeing those two white officers legally punished for their misdeed, but he is soon blocked by the system, and he is not consoled at all by the fact that he technically wins in his legal conflict with the police. Around the end of the story, he comes to have a little private conversation with his son, and this becomes quietly poignant as they come to share their anger and frustration toward the system.

While firmly sticking to its sobering tone, the movie occasionally gives us impressive visual moments to accentuate its two main characters’ respective plights in addition to their emotional conflict along the story. I particularly enjoy the long-take scene which phlegmatically follows Leroy chasing after a suspect alone in a factory, and I also like a certain extended shot which looks at Leroy and Ken from the behind while Al Green’s “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” is played on the soundtrack.

The two main performers in the movie did a wonderful job of carrying the film together. While John Boyega, who has been always interesting to watch since his breakout performance in “Attack the Block” (2011), is fabulous in his strong performance full of quiet intensity, Steve Toussaint is equally excellent as embodying his character’s tenacity, and they effortlessly convey to us their characters’ complicated emotional relationship whenever they share the screen.

In conclusion, “Red, White and Blue” is another excellent entry in “Small Axe”, and I admire the efficient storytelling by McQueen and his co-writer Courttia Newland as well as the commendable efforts from Boyega and Toussaint. In fact, I wish the movie could be longer to show more of their characters, and the ending is rather abrupt in my trivial opinion, but they are just minor flaws on the whole, and I remain quite impressed anyway.

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