Red, White, and Blue (2020)
Written by Steven McQueen & Courttia Newland
Directed by Steven McQueen
In this film, director Steve McQueen explores the intersection of blacks & immigrants with the police. To say this is a politically and emotionally charged issue to take on would be an understatement. Much like the United States, England’s law enforcement has had a very tense relationship with Black and Asian communities. The majority of the London Metropolitan Police in the 1970s were white men from conservative backgrounds who saw any guff from a non-white civilian as an attempt to humiliate them. There was an ongoing sentiment that these populations need to be “put in their place” to hold up the law.
Leroy Logan (John Boyega) is the son of Jamaican immigrants who is a forensic scientist. His intense father, Kenneth, taught Leroy early on to keep his distance from the police while family friend Jesse is a community liaison with them. As an adult, Leroy believes that there needs to be a healing of the rift between the police and immigrant community, and he joins the police. With pretty terrible timing, he joins at the same time his father is brutally beaten by officers who confront him about parking his work van. The father and son find the conflict between them growing.
Meanwhile, Leroy excels in the police academy but finds he must deal with racism from his colleagues. He finds a tenuous ally in a Pakistani officer named Kamali. While Leroy is battered with discrimination from the other officers, he also faces mistrust from the black youths in the community he patrols. They see him as a traitor, someone working for a system that will turn on them and steal their lives from them. Leroy is convinced he can change the system from within, but every victory he believes he achieves seems to crumble in his hands.
Leroy’s father, Kenneth, is a profoundly complicated character. While there is no love lost between him and the police, he is also culturally conservative himself. The music he listens to in his car is gospel music and Leroy’s wife playing the world “sex” during Scrabble leads to some disapproving looks. Leroy’s mother is not allowed to have much of her own voice and seems to have resigned over the years to her husband’s insistence on being the final authority. When Kenneth finally gets his day in court only to have the police department offer a settlement before a judge hears the case, he is deflated. Kenneth has always felt that he was subjugated by the police, and this was his one chance to look them in the eye and condemn them, and that is taken away from him.
Leroy and Kenneth are so alike, and this is seen in how Leroy deals with racial slurs being written on his locker, and the greatest slight, his call for backup is unanswered. This leads to the officer being beaten by the perp whom Leroy does ultimately capture. Leroy bursts into the officer’s rec room and explodes on them about their intentional failure to respond. He’s both angry about what happened to him, and beneath the surface, he’s raging on behalf of his dad.
What I appreciated most was that McQueen doesn’t offer up a pat ending with an amicable solution. Leroy has been trying so hard to fix the system from within and has become so broken & unsure if it could even happen. He comes to an understanding with Kenneth, but the next steps are unknown. Leroy’s one ally Kasmail resigns from the force with the sentiment that they can’t change the racism, that it’s ingrained in who cops are. McQueen never frames this as a judgment against Kasmail, and from what we’ve seen, the man is wholly justified, and so would Leroy if he wanted to leave.
In a year where systemic racism in the police has been a significant point of conversation and conflict in America, this film feels very relevant. Some claim the police can be reformed, that great representation would lead to a more just police force. I am one of those that doesn’t believe that is true and agree that defunding the police and moving that money into social programs and expanded mental health care would go a hell of a lot further and solving the underlying issues that lead to crime. If I could have advised Leroy, I would certainly have told him his fight wasn’t worth it, and the real battle is in ending the carceral systems that have invented new, insidious forms of slavery.