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Review: Red, White and Blue, Small Axe (BBC1)

Change can be a daunting prospect. The basis of all drama, writers will bang their heads against the wall to produce a character who’s change across their runtime is fundamental, pivotal, exciting. Television can be especially prone to demanding this, its format longer-form yet its approach to storytelling often more predictable. It’s refreshing, and challenging then when TV offers us 80 tense minutes of characters who might not seem to arrive anywhere other than where they started.

The third episode of the nation’s new favourite Sunday night series Small Axe was just that, challenging and not always overtly satisfying, at least in the obvious “getting paid for your time” entertainment way. Red, White and Blue follows the arduous true story of Leroy Logan, a black British man who joined the London Metropolitan Police in the 1980s to try and force real institutional change. Beset on all sides by a racist work environment resistant to his mission, the Black community who see him as a traitor, and his father’s assault by two officers that leaves the family split on Leroy’s decision.

Played remarkably by British star John Boyega, Logan is a curious character. At turns vivacious and fun-loving, caught dancing with friends or sprinting across finishing lines for fun, he is also clearly intelligent and believes strongly in the capacity for individuals to bring about change for the better. Starting out as a research scientist before applying to the force, his journey shows us his aptitude in the cordial confines of basic training to the lawlessness of frontline policing. Boyega here seems older than his wide-eyed characters of years past. The role that might settle him as a true leading man, he has a steely determination throughout. He is so eloquent about his goals (“I’m not here to make friends” he states in basic training) that it is utterly demoralising to see how little he seems to change the police. As his few allies abandon him and his colleagues become even more emboldened in their racist treatment of him, he ends up questioning what drove him to join the police in the first place.

The roaring fire alongside Boyega’s quieter performance is that of his father Ken Logan, played by Steve Toussaint. An initially reserved and principled man, the horror of being beaten by the police puts him and his son at odds. Though not insurmountable, this gives the story its emotional heart and easily the most watchable scenes. Toussaint’s powerful speech at the end is also probably its most resonant moment and offers the smallest sense of payoff the episode has.

This is underscored by what could probably be described as the most unsettling and downbeat style director Steve McQueen has pursued on this series so far. There is little in the way of light-hearted relief, most of the music coming from a few diegetic instances; Leroy and his cousin dancing in the living room, the young waif who Leroy finds playing piano at a community club. At the heart though is a smattering of Al Green’s finest. A moment shared between Logan and his father right before training to the sounds of Green’s “How Can You Mend A Broken Heart” is so pared back in its composition it almost goes unmissed, yet will send most audiences into damp eye syndrome. There is also little in the way of set pieces compared to previous episodes, though one excruciatingly tense chase scene evokes the long, unbroken tracking shots of yore for McQueen. It is also the closest he has ever come to something that could be described as horror: tense and monstrous in its lighting and pacing.

It is a strange proposition, depicting the long turning wheel of structural change in a short format that traditionally demands revolution rather than evolution. How do you film an 80-minute biopic about a man who spent their life seeking change, which we have sadly only achieved in part even 30 years later? McQueen certainly doesn’t take the easy route. This isn’t a triumphant story like Mangrove. There is no grand climax. Rather, he tries something more radical. Instead of a satisfyingly bookended drama, we are watching an episode *ahem* of what can only be described as the show of a life’s pursuit. It might not be immediately obvious but there is always something being said in the unassuming Red, White and Blue.

Red, White and Blue can be viewed here, alongside the other Small Axe episodes, Mangrove and Lover's Rock.

Read our review of Mangrove here, and our review of Lover's Rock here.

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