Red White and Blue Steve McQueen

Red White and Blue Steve McQueen

Red White and Blue   Steve McQueen (BBC, UK, 2020) John Boyega

Viewed terrestrial TV, 29 Nov 2020

Just so…story                       

Steve McQueen’s film, Red White and Blue (RWB), is one of five dramas he’s made for the BBC about the Black UK experience. RWB tells the story of Leroy Logan, the black police officer who rose to the rank of Superintendent in the Met before retiring from the force after some 30 years service.

McQueen’s film follows the early days of his career and is a succinct portrayal and accounting of what it was to be a black man in an alien antagonistic environment like the Metropolitan Police in the mid 1980s.

The early part of McQueen’s drama covers Logan’s extraordinary decision to join the Met. A decision he’d made, but hadn’t acted on, before the racist beating given to his father by two constables. Anyone who knows anything of the black community at this period will know that such treatment was routinely meted out to black men by police officers. It was a quasi – fascist technique used to remind blacks of their place in society. (Before the black community became whipping boys for the police, the Irish immigrants suffered similar attentions). Despite the severe injuries done to his father by the Force, Logan continued with his decision to join the police, seeing the decision as an attempt by himself to bring change to this homogenous close-ranked institution.

McQueen’s film is a regulation drama structured about the idea of a situation, and it’s a situation that plays out, rather than a narrative.   It’s filmed in the conventional manner, with the camera operating like an unseen privileged witness or observer. RWB is well shot well acted and well scripted.  McQueen’s script works because unlike some polemic dramas it never becomes a formulaic polemic, it focuses on being in the moment, not a retrograde hindsight. It has classic fimic narrative virtues which both constrain it to some extent and but tellingly also enable it to portray the experience of Logan’s situation.

McQueen’s account of Logan’s life is told not as a subjectivity, using techniques such as voice over, point of view shots etc. Rather it is shot as an ‘objectivity’ with the camera observing what happens when Black people encounter Police culture. RWB’s telling contribution to the cannon of TV is that it tells the story Black people from their perspective. It’s a rendering of the consequences of being black in this society at that time and what that meant. By extrapolation from the evidence today, the indication is that many of these features of police/black community relations, have not changed.    

The Police as an institution were founded in the 19th century as a civic paramilitary force. From the beginning they were tasked with a political purpose: to suppress any overt unrest among the lower orders. They were established as a unit that patrolled and intimidated (Police officers has to present as physically dominant: vix – the helmet and until recently the minimum height requirement was 5ft 10 inches). Officers were recruited from either retired armed services personel or from the educated working class: a usually conservative gene pool. Like regiments in the armed forces the Police have significant tribal characteristics. The nature of the work promoting a mechanical solidarity relating to core identity (how they define who they are and what they are doing), a core ideology and justificatory system and a sense of being one. That the police should see themselves as White British, carriers of White British culture and values (or at least particular ‘police’ take on British life style – food – mores –religion), and closed off against outsiders, is not surprising. But a new situation arises when the official encompassing system of values and ethics, set by the political and managerial hierarchy, has to change to reflect major shifts in societal composition; but the mechanical value system the permeates the active organisation on the ground, simply continues, unchanged.  

What happens is that there is a critical divergence between the official code of conduct and the actual operational code, between surface and substrate.  In the organisation those opposed to or with no interest in change (and from the top of the pyramid there may not be any real encouragement or insistence on actual change, the preference being to concentrate on image and how things look {they mustn’t look bad}) simply play lip service to the new code, and mostly continue as before. And of course this is the police service that Logan joins.   A milieu that McQueen objectifies in the person of Logan with its: hypocrisy, its coded language, its barbed interactions, its polite dismissals, its subtle implications of black inferiority, the smirking sardonic comments, the smiles on the faces of fellow officers following Logan’s complaints. These all leading up to the incident in which Logan when chasing a suspect finds that the mechanical forces governing the behaviour of his so-called colleagues close down on him: they refuse to back him up, to go support help him when he is in danger. Except for the circumstance that he is black, this would be an egregious violation of the tribal code: help, look after your mate. Because Logan is black, he is abandoned to his fate by his fellow white officers.

So we witness what Logan lives through after ‘joining up’. Probably the key element of RWB is the manner in which the Met as an institution is inculpated as a black man takes steps to become ‘One of Them.’ Through McQueen’s rendering of Logan’s account the viewer gets some experience of what systemic racism is in British society through an institution like the police.  The viewer also understands that institutions such as the police where the formal and informal interactions merge in the behaviour of individual officers, are highly resistant to change. They are Red White and Blue, not Black.

McQueen highlights the heroic stoicism of Leroy Logan but he also raises questions about the extent to which individual gestures such as Logan made with his life, can qualitatively effect change in institutions such as the police, a sort of white man’s tribe. As Logan progresses from situation to situation in the drama, the reaction is: how and why is this man persevering with this? To which the response is: his ideational intention to show the bastards what a black man is – he’s their equal if not better. McQueen’s script works because unlike some polemic dramas it never becomes a mechanical polemic, it focuses on being in the moment, not a retrograde hindsight.

Looking at the faces of the Hong Kong Police, the actions of the CRS in Paris, the faces of the the Police in Belarus all seem to highlight the contradictions inherent in reforming the police, organisations that operate on the principle of assimilation and absorption not diversification.

adrin neatrour





Author: Star & Shadow

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