All That We Cannot See
by Nicholas Russell
Red, White, and Blue
Dir. Steve McQueen, UK, Amazon Studios
Diane Arbus once said, “I really believe there are things which nobody would see unless I photographed them.” That’s the guiding philosophy behind Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology, five films depicting the West Indian community of London from the 1960s to the 1980s. McQueen and co-writers Alastair Siddons and Courttia Newland toggle between fiction and historical recreation, all the while attempting to imbue nuance and depth to their depiction of black life in England’s capital. Specifically, as McQueen notes in a press release for the anthology, “To me, it is a love letter to Black resilience, triumph, hope, music, joy, and love as well as to friendship and family.”
When preparing to write this review, I continually compared this statement with what’s shown on-screen. Having only seen the three films screened for NYFF, I can’t present a complete critique of the full Small Axe series. But I think there is enough offered here to have a conversation about the burdens black creators face when they endeavor to shed light on that which deserves to be seen, positive and negative.
The festival’s Opening Night selection, Lovers Rock (technically the second “episode” in the series), is the standout among the three, most successfully justifying McQueen’s project. In 68 minutes, the audience wades through a night of passion, sensuality, and unbridled freedom as we witness the inner workings and rapture of a blues house party in 1980. The thrall of a crowd, the navigation of desire and subsequent repulsion at unwanted attraction, the camaraderie amongst friends and strangers arriving at a place meant to strip away inhibition. Men watch women dance from the edges of the dance floor, a lively MC and his selector in tune with the moods and energies of the room, firm pulse on the party. Though we most closely follow Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) and a young man (Micheal Ward) as they come together over the course of the night, Lovers Rock could have easily been completely plotless.
Seeing McQueen in a mode of lightness, of warmth and joy, presents the audience with the opportunity to revel in fairly unfamiliar territory for a filmmaker more commonly known for his penchant for unflinching depictions of violence and tortured souls in existential turmoil. There’s a newfound immediacy of the camera. He and cinematographer Shabier Kirchner pay special attention to minute details. There is the literal sweat of a room as a mass of bodies thrash and perspire. The shaking of stomping feet and the haze of smoke. When Janet Kay’s seminal track “Silly Games” starts to spin, in a film already filled with spectacular songs, the crowd begins to sing and dance in unison, continuing long after the song finishes. Dennis Bovel, who wrote the song, once said, “Little girls always try to sing a high note, so when I wrote ‘Silly Games’ and put that high note in there, it meant that every female in the dance would try and sing that note.” McQueen signals this early during the party’s preparation, when a group of women cooking the night’s offerings sing the song a cappella, playfully one-upping each other to see who can go highest.
This party functions as a place where social barriers can be softened and broken, where black people might freely express their sexuality and desire without fear of white violence. I specify white violence because, though McQueen hints at the danger lurking in a neighborhood full of white residents, there is also the threat of sexual assault from other partygoers. Here, dancing serves for some as a prelude to sex, while others see dancing as sex itself. That line between desire and predation can tip quickly, as we see in one scene that shifts from euphoric to claustrophobic. Still, this night of sensuality, where music is the arbiter of intimacy, turns into something even more powerful, something pre-verbal, where rhythm becomes a kind of exorcism, a cleansing through sweat and movement of the anxieties of living in a constant state of uncertainty and defense.
In horror movies, daytime typically functions as a signifier of safety for the audience, a reprieve from jump-scares and monsters. There is a similar feeling conjured in Lovers Rock when this long night is finally over. When day breaks, it’s almost unsettling, even as the camera welcomes lush sunlight and color. In the sun, London becomes a white world where the light reveals everything that can be taken away.
Mangrove (“episode one” in the series) seems most interested in the drama of what can be and often is taken away from black people simply trying to live. The film presents the true story of Frank Crichlow (played by Shaun Parkes), a Trinidadian immigrant who opens the titular restaurant in lily-white Notting Hill. A meeting place for the local West Indian community, the Mangrove is constantly beset upon by racist police officers who use any excuse (drugs, prostitution, improper licensing) to raid the restaurant and arrest its patrons. Leading the officers is P.C. Frank Pulley (Sam Spruell), a seething cartoon of a racist whose first scene in the film sees him monologizing at length about the danger of black immigrants in the community. Soon, Crichlow and his peers, including members of the Black Panther Party, stage a peaceful protest that marches to the local precinct. Things turn chaotic as wave after wave of officers swarm the group, stoking confrontation by wantonly beating and arresting those involved. In the aftermath, nine members of the protest, including Crichlow, are charged with inciting a riot and put on trial.
Something that bothers me about movies endeavoring to depict what, in McQueen’s words, is termed “black resistance” is that they all pull from the same book, making their black protagonists walking PSAs while the white antagonists become challenges to be surmounted, like a sports movie where the underdog makes it to the big game. We are presented with the same flat idea of bigotry, all snarling anger and condescending disgust. And we are presented with the same supposedly noble and brave portrayal of black resistance, which amounts to shouting, crying, and sermonizing at length about the legacy of slavery, the injustice of racism. Thus we root for the downfall of the bad whites because of their outsized seediness and unsavory nature, rather than focusing on the institution they serve. Examples of this include everyone’s favorite punching bag The Help, Hidden Figures, and even BlacKkKlansman. This might be one of the more severe limitations of historical dramas. Individuals come to the fore as drivers of narrative. It’s annoying to have watched this film at such a “relevant” time, the night of the day Breonna Taylor’s murderers were officially let off the hook. This year has belonged to groups, collectives doing the hard and thankless work of not only showing up in the streets, but consistently putting their lives on the line in order to protest and to protect. I fear there will be no other way for people to think of the historical event this movie dramatizes: as something significant for its prescience and parallels to the present day. It’s hard to not suspect that this is also a key feature in why McQueen chose to tell this story.
Despite the transparency of its timing, there is a vibrancy and richness in McQueen’s illustration of Crichlow and the West Indian community, a liveliness in short bursts. It is an unceasing pleasure to watch a film where black skin is shot competently, even lovingly, lit with care and special attention. The Small Axe anthology is a black series, one that seeks to rectify the prevalence of light-skinned black actors in major roles. This can’t be taken lightly. It is an integral part of McQueen’s project and alone affirms the value of what he’s trying to achieve. Still, the same brand of caricatured racism that pervades so many films about resistance and injustice overshadows the proceedings. One wonders how often racist white men, especially police officers, pontificate to themselves about the “place” of black people, as does P.C. Pulley. Not necessarily because it’s hard to believe, but because it’s so often presented as ground zero for their prejudice. These people are seemingly incapable of self-awareness and shown to be brutish monsters. To some, this might be a more comforting way to see racism, as something easily identifiable and easily condemned, a few bad apples, and so on.
In one dramatically absurd scene, a new police officer loses a card game at his precinct and, as a consequence, is made to arrest the first black passerby he comes across. We are obviously meant to hope that the naïveté of this new officer will bring forth a conscience (it never does). And we are supposed to marvel at the monstrousness of those in power. So how do you depict hatred convincingly? How do you depict resistance in all its complexity, beyond rah-rah, fist-in-the-air symbolism? Part of the problem lies with how it’s historically been framed as a dilemma of contrasts. In order to “care,” we have to be shown what stands to be lost or broken. We have to empathize, a cheap word these days that has been dissected and interrogated multiple times over by black scholars. As Professor Namwali Serpell writes in her essay, “The Banality of Empathy,” “White American football fans may wince with vicarious pain as they watch black players ram into each other, but that doesn’t mean they care about the state-sanctioned violence to which those players are susceptible when they walk off the field.” In order to empathize, for some reason we have to be reminded of tragedy, to see the requisite amount of signaling for evil in the bigotry of others. The racists inevitably say something like, “Shut up, you black bastard, you mongrel, you degenerate,” etc. I always stop to wonder if the white actors playing virulent racists are the ones having the most fun.
“At this moment in history, one man can inspire a revolution,” a minor character actually says in Mangrove. Also, “we are the protagonists of our stories.” Why do black characters in movies of this kind talk as if they know they’re in an important movie. They speak their minds, which are full of ready-made monologues stating what the movie is about and why the audience should be concerned. No one is given enough time to be seen beyond their instrumentation in a drama of blackness as a target of destruction. At the same time, the occasional glimpses of joy we see feel strategically placed as precious objects in service of manipulation. Why do we need to be continually reminded of black people’s agency and sophistication, their vibrancy and diversity, through their degradation and violation? Why do violence and shock hold so much lurid value to well-meaning audiences?
Frank Crichlow’s desire to fit in with the surrounding neighborhood results in one of the more compelling elements of the movie. It manifests as a kind of paternal gruffness, scolding kids for lighting up in the restaurant, shooing away loiterers, constantly vocalizing what the Mangrove isn’t (a brothel, a drug dealing operation). The specter of “respectability” looms heavy—as if that will be enough, as if that is really what these conflicts are about. When Frank and his peers are put on trial, we see the police lie under oath, try to parrot black speech in order to falsify evidence that would substantiate their use of excessive force. We’re engulfed by the stiff, stringent pillars of white authority, which manifest as bemused curiosity and thinly veiled disdain on the part of the lawyers and the judge.
McQueen wisely shows the more granular processes of frustration, from procuring legal representation to enacting respectability, and how these system-specific avenues yield no results. It becomes clear that a victory within the confines of the law is purposefully difficult for the commonwealth to achieve. These scenes of legal strategy feel productive, exciting because there is the chance, any chance, for justice to be won, not by benevolent white allies (though they are present in typical “isn’t that nice” fashion), but by the defendants themselves, who give their testimonies with welcome wit and aggression. This is why we watch courtroom dramas, especially considering how rare it is to see black defendants succeed. But they are succeeding within a system that never changes.
John Boyega’s Leroy Logan seeks to effect that change from within in Red, White, and Blue, the final entry in the series. Another historical depiction, this film follows Logan as he navigates the perils of black exceptionalism at the expense of recognition. Though he’s a talented researcher with a degree and future job prospects, Logan feels he’s being sidelined in the workplace, intentionally kept out of sight. One day, Logan’s father, Kenneth (Steve Toussaint), is attacked by two white police officers and has to be rushed to the hospital. This event, in addition to others that show the police as a constant, terrorizing presence for the Logan family, inspires Leroy to join the force. He wants to see if it’s possible to shake things up from the inside, to look out for his community as its representative and to face off against the state-sanctioned violence that plagues it.
As Leroy excels and rises above his fellow students, and reasons with his friends and family about how they have to do something because no one else will, I was reminded of the following from James Baldwin’s The Devil Finds Work: “Blacks know something about black cops...They know that their presence on the force doesn’t change the force or the judges or the lawyers or the bondsmen or the jails. They know the black cop’s mother and his father, they may have met the sister, and they know the junkie, or a student, in limbo, at Yale. They know how much the black cop has to prove, and how limited are his means of proving it: where I grew up, black cops were yet more terrifying than white ones.”
My dad is a black cop. I recognize Leroy’s demeanor and earnestness to do good from a closer vantage point. But this is not and never has been an issue of representation. Agents of the state, no matter how dark their skin, are still agents of the state. Enfranchisement into an oppressive, systemically racist entity is no cause for celebration. Black officers cannot change the law and are, in fact, rewarded handsomely for over-policing it. So it’s jarring to view Red, White, and Blue after the farce of legal justice shown in Mangrove. The latter at least goes to great lengths to illustrate the thorniness and opacity of the law, a prohibitive facet of society that is not broken, but purposefully designed. Though that film ends in momentary victory, the end title cards detail how Frank Crichlow’s harassment by the police never actually ended. Ironically, both films arrive at this kind of truth. Courttia Newland, co-writer of Lovers Rock and Red, White, and Blue, says, “Leroy Logan’s story shows how he went right into the belly of the beast to try to fix the system from the inside. He worked with his community and became the iconic figure that he is today.”
Again, we run into the problem of individuals taking center stage as agents of change rather than a collective. This is another key difference between Mangrove and Red, White, and Blue: the only reason Frank and his friends are able to succeed is by working together, along with the help of outsiders. In fact, one of Mangrove’s key scenes illustrates the futility of going it alone. Frank considers taking a plea deal in exchange for freedom. Altheia Jones-Lecointe (Letitia Wright), leader of the British Black Panther movement, passionately explains why such a move would effectively destabilize their chances of success and set a terrible precedent for posterity. It has nothing to do with weakness or inability. The legal system eats individuals for breakfast.
Red, White, and Blue seems to suggest that Leroy Logan’s career was not only exceedingly difficult but also perhaps futile, given how it never depicts him rising up in the ranks, due to workplace racism, or making any inroads with his community, thwarted by off-screen violence that suggests the problems in that community go deeper than he can understand. His one moment of heroism, when he single-handedly takes down a perp after backup fails to arrive, comes at the cost of his physical well-being (the perp beats him down) and his dignity.
Are we meant to empathize with this struggle, which seems noble but ultimately feels wasted? It’s clear that McQueen and Newland want the audience to wrestle with the question of whether or not Leroy’s fight is worth the trouble. But they also provide too clear an answer. The depiction of Leroy Logan’s early career and that of other black police officers is valuable on its own. Black officers have now become a facet of daily life, and the genesis of their decisions to join law enforcement hasn’t been covered as much as it should be. But by nature, a star-led vehicle such as Red, White, and Blue skews our judgment before the film even begins. No matter how nuanced the performance, no matter how unflinching the rendering, we are primed to view the star as the hero.
With Red, White, and Blue, McQueen and his writers have ultimately set out to make a film about the relationship between a black father and son. My lack of commentary on that subject reflects what I found to be a completely insubstantial through line in the narrative. Leroy’s father is a source of constant conflict and anger, a man who cannot abide by his son’s decision to join the police for genuine, well-founded reasons, but is still shown as misguided and uncaring in his lack of support. Eventually, the two come together again. In the final scene, Leroy and Kenneth share a drink in the kitchen. Kenneth makes a statement that functions as a thesis for the Small Axe anthology: “Big change—it is a slow-turning wheel.” There are many changes that have been slow to arrive. How we depict black resistance against racism, how we depict racism itself, and how we critically engage with history in all its complexity should be among those changes.