Oscar winner Steve McQueen’s terrific “Small Axe” series of five film-length inter-connected stories of life in London’s West Indian community opens on a high point with “Red, White and Blue.” It’s a generic “new to the force” cop story about a college educated Jamaican who decides his destiny is helping to integrate London’s racist police department in the late ’70s given weight and dramatic power by “Star Wars” veteran John Boyega.
When forensics scientist and college teacher Leroy Logan (Boyega) tells his musician brother (Tyrone Huntley) “I want to join the force,” the brother makes the late ’70s joke we’re all thinking.
“You wanna be a JEDI?”
But that’s the lone light moment in a gritty, by-the-book story of a smart man with a cause trying “to bring change to this organization from the inside out,” facing all the expected pitfalls from a rigid culture resistant to change.
Leroy learned to carry himself with dignity and not accept police harassment as a fact of life as a boy. His father, played with the dogged focus and seething resentment of an immigrant who “wanted us to be more British than the British” by veteran character Steve Toussaint, accepted nothing less than the highest aims from his son.
No wonder Leroy, married (Saffron Coomber is Grace) and with a baby on the way, keeps the news that he wants to “make a difference” for his community from his Dad.
That’s hard to do, as Dad has run afoul of the cops, and taken a beating for trying to debate a ticket. His father’s outrage is just the first time Leroy hears “traitor.” “Constable Judas” and “coconut” are two of the more creative insults he hears as he trains and takes on a beat in his new job.
What’s striking about “Red, White and Blue” is how everything we see — every situation encountered — is familiar and expected, and still stirring and somehow fresh. The indelible sense of place, the musical patois of the island people who left their former British colonies and migrated to Britain, and Boyega’s performance give this film-length episode its power.
Watch Boyega’s face betray real doubts the first time he dons the uniform and that towering bobby’s helmet. And feel his Sidney Poitier as “MISTER Tibbs” fury at confronting institutional racism, seeing the long road ahead he must travel, alone for now.
This is a script stripped down to types and situations as timeworn as The Cop Drama itself. But Boyega puts on the sort of acting clinic for McQueen that nothing else he’s done allowed him to do.
MPA Rating: unrated, violence, some profanity
Cast: John Boyega, Saffron Coomber, Steve Toussaint
Credits: Created by and directed by Steve McQueen, script by Courttia Newland and Steve McQueen. A BBC/Amazon release on Amazon.
Running time: 1:22