By Alex McPherson

Director Steve McQueen’s “Red, White and Blue,” the third installment of “Small Axe,” provides a heartbreaking look at racism within policing, and a thought-provoking, brilliantly acted character study.

“Red, White and Blue” depicts the true story of Leroy Logan (John Boyega), a forensic scientist living in London during the early 1980s with his West Indian family. Yearning to more directly impact the community he resides in, Leroy considers joining the local police force. After his father, Kenneth (Steve Touissant), is beaten by a couple of officers seemingly at random, Leroy’s motivation to become involved heightens, despite Kenneth’s fierce objection.

While Leroy understands the difficulties that this career choice entails, he believes, somewhat idealistically, that he can shift attitudes and mindsets from within it, helping to combat the flaws pervading policing. Although Leroy receives support from his loving wife, Gretl (Antonia Thomas), and family friend Jesse (Nadine Marshall), who works as a liaison for the Met, he soon finds himself ostracized by his own community and encounters challenges that leave him scarred and exhausted, yet ever aware that major systemic change must occur.

Featuring an absolutely incredible lead performance, and a story that viscerally showcases the difficulty of fighting a system much larger than any single person, “Red, White and Blue” is a sobering exploration of injustice and family bonds, providing some of the most powerful moments of the entire “Small Axe” series.

Similar to “Mangrove,” McQueen spends ample time establishing who Leroy is as a person and detailing his relationships with friends and family members, particularly his father. Leroy is an admirable, strong-willed individual with a warm heart and diligent work ethic, who’s determined to make a noticeable impact in the police force. He puts in his all, even outperforming a number of his peers in police training. Boyega is an endearing presence throughout the film, portraying Leroy’s skepticism and self-doubt later on with heartbreaking impact. 

Indeed, “Red, White and Blue” grows increasingly grim as it goes on, as Leroy’s own end goals seemingly slip away from him. The film frequently slows down to focus on Boyega’s reactions and Leroy’s self-reflection. As Leroy looks at himself in the mirror, for example, dressed up in uniform, we understand the inner conflict he feels, and appreciate the threats and dangers he faces in this line of work. With only one other person of color on the force with him, Leroy feels adrift and alienated practically wherever he goes, lacking figurative reinforcements to help him achieve his vision.  

Although he receives some aforementioned support from family members, Kenneth adamantly opposes Leroy’s decision to become a police officer — believing that Leroy is squandering his education to become involved in an organization pervaded by prejudice, putting his own and his family’s way of life at risk. In fact, this father-son relationship remains the film’s emotional core, providing two valid yet conflicting mentalities that provide much food for thought.

 Finding a balance between Leroy and Kenneth’s views is quite challenging — a balance between comfort and risk, between change and maintaining the status quo. McQueen depicts them both as weathered, wise individuals eventually sharing an understanding that they exist in a world where change is often slight and difficult to achieve, yet always worth fighting for, even if it means starting from scratch. As a result, “Red, White and Blue” lacks clear resolution or a sense of catharsis, ending on a note of meditative reflection that resonates with me long after the credits rolled. 

Despite the film’s intensity, however, there’s still much to relish in “Red, White and Blue,” just like the other “Small Axe” entries. McQueen’s attention to period detail is on full display, with a soundtrack featuring Al Green songs that infuses the proceedings with added emotional and symbolic weight.

The cinematography by Shabier Kirchner is outstanding, once again, containing numerous shots — especially during an atmospheric, nail-biting sequence where Leroy tracks down a criminal on his own — that have etched themselves into my psyche.

Even though I wish McQueen would have shown more of Leroy’s life story, such as his founding of the Black Police Association, the power of “Red, White and Blue” is undeniable. This is yet another fantastic entry in McQueen’s “Small Axe” series, tragic yet essential viewing. Although little has seemingly changed regarding policing between then and now, the film remains a testament to bravery, heroism, and perseverance to confront social issues that remain sadly relevant today.

“Red, White and Blue” is part of the “Small Axe” anthology, directed by Steve McQueen, that is a part of a TV mini-series on Amazon Prime. The drama’s run time is 1 hour, 20 minutes. Alex’s Rating: A

By Alex McPherson
Director Steve McQueen’s “Lovers Rock,” the second installment of “Small Axe,” is a masterful work of art that enriches both the mind and soul.

Taking place almost entirely within a West London house party in the 1980s, “Lovers Rock” visualizes the thrill of an escape from day-to-day life. Love is in the air, particularly for West Indian immigrants Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) and Franklyn (Michael Ward), as the reggae music plays on. Although threats of violence lurk on the periphery, this get together brims with joy — providing Black partygoers with an energizing escape from an unforgiving world.

Despite its minimalist premise, there’s much to absorb in “Lovers Rock,” from the ingenious cinematography to the thought-provoking themes being explored. This is a film for anyone who appreciates the craft of filmmaking and the ways the medium can transport viewers to a different time and place. In fact, anyone with a heartbeat can enjoy McQueen’s film on some level.

From start to finish, we feel right there with the characters, and anticipation for the evening is palpable. McQueen makes use of all the senses to set the mood and establish the gathering as an alluring, rapturous haven. 

When the film begins, we see a crew maneuvering sound equipment, the camera capturing each click and clack of cables snapping into place. All the while, a group of women cook curry in the background, enthusiastically singing the main chorus of Janet Kay’s “Silly Games” as delicious aromas waft through the surroundings. Smell-O-Vision be damned, this gets the job done equally as well.

When the party begins, “Lovers Rock” becomes downright mesmerizing. I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen for the film’s entire 68-minute runtime. Indeed, I became despondent when the end credits rolled, wishing I could keep watching for another hour. 

While reggae music blasts through the speakers, viewers feel in the middle of the action, as the camera weaves throughout the environment to capture moments of both sensual intimacy and rambunctious exuberance among the partygoers. “Lovers Rock” all but encourages viewers to get up and dance along with them, welcoming us to join in a meaningful experience.

It’s difficult to convey just how effective McQueen’s approach is, an example of pure cinematic bliss that conveys its atmosphere with precision and tactile, sensory detail. Just make sure you turn on subtitles because, like at any party, it’s difficult to sometimes understand what people are saying.  

Amid all the dancing and romance, however, lie themes that ensure “Lovers Rock” works on a deeper level beyond its immersive qualities. We get the sense that the partygoers want to hold onto these moments as long as possible — their fears and sorrows disappearing, if only for a brief time, in the party’s intoxicating vibes and ample possibilities. 

One powerful sequence in particular involves the partygoers engaging in an extended a-capella rendition of “Silly Games,” infusing the lyrics with a bittersweet, mournful weight as they repeat the chorus over and over again, long after the music stops playing.

The party represents an egalitarian space, in a sense, and McQueen meaningfully contrasts it with the harshness of the outside world, and the racism the central characters endure out in it.

The film also emphasizes that safety isn’t guaranteed within the party itself, even when one feels most comfortable. Bammy, for example (suavely portrayed by Daniel Francis-Swaby), lures some characters, and potentially viewers themselves, into a false sense of security as troubling impulses take hold down the road.

In this way, “Lovers Rock” depicts a different kind of rebellion than “Mangrove,” one against the challenges of everyday life via a gathering that reaches transcendent heights, while still containing its own dangers. McQueen’s film shows people grabbing hold of a moment and cherishing it, creating a sense of communal joy and togetherness stronger than the forces of injustice — over too soon, but life-affirming and oh, so enjoyable.

Will this film receive another A+, you may ask? Why yes, yes it will.

“Lovers Rock” is part of “Small Axe,” an anthology directed by Steve McQueen that is an Amazon Prime TV mini-series. This drama’s run-time is 1 hour, 10 min. Alex’s Rating: A+, 

By Alex McPherson

“Mangrove,” the first installment of director Steve McQueen’s “Small Axe” anthology series, is harrowing, inspirational, and relevant to our modern social climate.

McQueen’s film focuses on the events leading up to and including the 1970 trial of the Mangrove Nine in London. Entrepreneur and Trinidaddian immigrant Frank Crichlow (portrayed by Shaun Parkes with emotional nuance) opens a business in Notting Hill called the Mangrove, intent on providing good food and better vibes without attracting unwanted attention. The restaurant soon becomes a popular community hub, especially for West Indian individuals.

Unfortunately, the local Police Constable Pulley (Sam Spruell) harasses both Crichlow and other people of color with malevolent glee — ordering several destructive raids on the Mangrove in the process. Played with blood-boiling effectiveness by Spruell, PC Pulley firmly believes in the subordination of Black people, attacking a location where many find comfort and respite.

 Before long, Altheia Jones-Lecointe (powerfully portrayed by Letitia Wright), a founder of the British Black Panther Movement, as well as activists Barbara Beese (Rochenda Sandall) and Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby), help persuade Crichlow to protest against police brutality at the Mangrove. Their attempted peaceful demonstration is turned violent by the police. Facing serious charges, the film then becomes an intense, nail-biting courtroom drama, as the Mangrove Nine confront injustice and police brutality in the face of monumental obstacles and risks to their personal safety. 

“Mangrove” is visceral, empathetic, and deeply moving — showcasing the fraught yet essential nature of activism within a systemically oppressive world. The film also remains both empowering and sobering in light of the continued fight for social justice in 2021 and beyond.

Indeed, the film captures a wide emotional spectrum — joy, hatred, anguish, defiance, hope, and perseverance — and depicts a story of determined individuals ever-so-slightly chipping away at the institutional racism that has dominated human society for so long and continues to do so. 

“Mangrove” contains numerous upsetting, sobering moments, but McQueen’s film doesn’t exploit its subjects for dramatic purposes. Rather, McQueen sets the scene perfectly — helping us understand what’s at stake, appreciate the challenges faced by the Mangrove Nine, and understand the comforting essence of the Mangrove itself through immersive filmmaking techniques and lived-in characterizations. 

Cinematographer Shabier Kirchner isn’t afraid to linger on images (a kitchen pan rolling back and forth along the floor after a raid; a silhouette of Altheia giving an impassioned speech with her fist raised) to lend them additional impact. Similarly, the script doesn’t brush over the characters’ contradictions and inner struggles — spotlighting Frank, Aletheia, Barbara, and Darcus for the heroes they are without rendering them one-dimensional.  

Crichlow, for example, is trying to start fresh after previous run-ins with the police at his former establishment. He is weathered and fatigued, extremely reluctant to fill the activist role he’s pressured to adopt. His mindset contrasts with Aletheia’s, who stands firm in her efforts to protest and to not surrender to larger forces. This leads to several fascinating, suspenseful interactions as the film progresses, as Crichlow weighs the benefits of giving in against the symbolic weight of the Trial for British society at large.

When the film reaches the courtroom — represented as a foreboding, larger-than-life presence — “Mangrove” doesn’t feel as manipulative or crowd-pleasing as something like Aaron Sorkin’s “The Trial of the Chicago Seven.” There’s no White Savior here, thank god, only intelligent, brave individuals confronting the very real forces of evil seeking to silence them. 

A couple of defendants — Altheia and Darcus — actually served as their own counsel in the proceedings, subverting the system to make stark condemnations of it and refusing to let others control their fate. Darcus in particular, portrayed with fervor by Kirby, gives a nuanced, impassioned speech that speaks to humanity’s long past of prejudice and the need to overcome it today. 

By its conclusion, McQueen encourages viewers to reflect on how far we’ve come, and how much we haven’t progressed, in terms of social justice. Even though efforts might seem fruitless, “Mangrove” reasserts that the fight must continue.

“Mangrove” is part of director Steve McQueen’s television mini-series, “Small Axe,” on Amazon Prime. Alex’s Rating: A+