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Reflections on Steve McQueen’s Red, White and Blue

Walter G. Moss: Like most great dramatists, McQueen doesn’t trumpet this wisdom, but slips it in naturally and in keeping with the values of one of his characters.

Red, White and Blue is the third of five Steve McQueen’s films presently being streamed on Amazon Prime. In reviewing Mangrove, the first of the series, I wrote “it’s excellent entertainment, just as one would anticipate from the director of the Academy-award winning 12 Years a Slave. The film manages to be both enlightening and enjoyable.” Ditto for Red, White and Blue.

Red, White and Blue

This latest in the series—the final two will be aired on December 11 and 18—is based on a true story about a London medical research scientist (with a Ph.D.), Leroy Logan (John Boyega), who in 1983, at age 26, became a policeman. As two recent articles, one in Time and one in Slate indicate, the film hews pretty closely to the real-life story, at least to the beginning of it. For the film ends very early in Logan’s career, when, after experiencing taunts and other racist behavior from white policemen, he contemplates quitting the force. In the last scene in the film he tells his dad, Kenneth (Steve Toussaint), “Sometimes I think the earth needs to be scorched. Replanted…so something good will come of it.” In real life, according to Time, Logan did not “scorch the earth,” but remained on the force for 30 years, was elected in 1998 “the first chair of the National Black Police Association,” received “a Member of the British Empire award from Queen Elizabeth in 2000,” and retired in 2013.

Like most great dramatists, McQueen doesn’t trumpet this wisdom, but slips it in naturally and in keeping with the values of one of his characters

Time also provides some useful context for McQueen’s film about Logan. Two years before he joined the police force, “major riots broke out in cities” across England. One of them occurred in the South London multicultural area of Brixton, and will be depicted in the next film in McQueen’s Small Axe series, Alex Wheatle, to be aired on Prime on 11 December. Also, “in 1983, the same year Logan joined the force, a report commissioned by the London Metropolitan Police concluded that racial prejudice was pervasive within the Metropolitan Police, and relations with young West Indians [like Logan] were ‘disastrous.’”

In addition to the above information, the Time article cites Logan’s views on how relevant he thinks McQueen’s film is: In the U. K. the “situation has regressed at least 20 years when it comes to heavy-handed enforcement tactics…Black people are nine times more likely to be stopped and searched by police officers than white people across England and Wales.” In the USA, citing the George Floyd case, Logan thinks “the same prejudices that existed when he was an officer still need to be unlearned.”

The Slate piece provides additional information. Logan’s memoir, Closing Ranks: My Life as a Cop, has recently been published. It enlightens us about some of the music heard in the film; a police assault on his father, which is dramatically depicted by McQueen; and various minor differences between the memoir and the film.

In addition to the online articles from Time and Slate, numerous traditional reviews of the film are available. To mention just a few, they can be found at Rolling Stone, GQ Magazine, and the Roger Ebert review site.

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Here, I’ll add only one additional reflection about the film, one I have not seen mentioned before— it’s possible it’s out there somewhere in cyberspace. Besides, the overall excellence of this McQueen movie, I thought it offered an essential piece of wisdom. It comes in the penultimate scene of the film, and it comes from Leroy’s wife, Gretl (Antonia Thomas).

The essence of the wisdom? Reduce your egoism. Love and devote your life to making the world a better place. What wisdom can be more important? In a LA Progressive essay at the beginning of this year, I quoted the Frenchwoman Simone de Beauvoir: “There is only one solution if old age is not to be an absurd parody of our former life, and that is to go on pursuing ends that give our existence a meaning—devotion to individuals, to groups, or to causes—social, political, intellectual, or creative work.” Two such causes I then identified were “removing Donald Trump (by impeachment or the ballot box) from the presidency and restoring with great vigor our government’s fight against climate change.” Thankfully, the first has been achieved, and the incoming Biden administration will assist the second.

In Red, White and Blue, McQueen has Gretl display a wisdom similar to that urged by de Beauvoir. Like most great dramatists, McQueen doesn’t trumpet this wisdom, but slips it in naturally and in keeping with the values of one of his characters, in this case Gretl’s. She and Leroy lie in their bed at night. Having become disgusted with the racist behavior directed at him from white police officers, he tells her of his growing despair: “Not one officer looks like me,” he bemoans. “I joined the police force to bring change, period. I dunno. I just dunno, Grets. And now Asif is gone.” (Asif, an officer of Pakistani descent and a friend of Leroy, also became disgusted with the racism within the police department and quit the force.) She replies, “You . . . Leroy, you’re talking about giving in. You? You didn’t join to be in a group. You do it for the people who get stopped and searched and beaten. The ones who get thrown in jail for nothing, the folk who respect you. You talk about yourself. What about the sacrifice I make supporting you?…Now you want to drop out? For those racists? Really?”

Like Leroy, we all become discouraged at times. Life sometimes seems unfair, and the evil of others, whether racism or of some other sort, seems almost impossible to overcome. At such times, the wisdom Gretl offers—working for others—is more important than ever, and goes along with that from old religious/folk songs—keep your “eyes on that prize" and “keep your hand on that plow.”

walter moss

Walter G. Moss