It’s a case of art somewhat imitating life for British-Nigerian actor John Boyega as he leads the way in Red, White And Blue, the third movie in Sir Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology on BBC Brit (DStv 120) from Monday, 16 November at 21:00. He plays police officer Leroy Logan, a real-life “bobby” (British street patrol officer) who fought back against racism after his own father was beaten by police, in this biographical film.
“I’ve been stopped and searched,” says John. “And my dad, who was a Pentecostal minister, got stopped on the way back from church. I was little. Everybody knows, especially if you grew up in Peckham, somebody who’s gone through the darkest scenarios with the police. I know a few people.”
Globally, there has been a drive in the last few years to be socially aware of the challenges that black people face, particularly from the legal system and the police on a daily basis. Everyday freedoms that some take for granted are a struggle for black people. John admits that even his right to protest Black Lives Matter (BLM), the social transformation movement that was formed in 2013 following the acquittal of teenager Trayvon Martin’s murderer George Zimmerman in the United States, could be a struggle.
Leroy Logan’s life matters
John has been outspoken about BLM and actively taking part in protests, but sometimes he fears that his advocacy for basic human rights and equality could see him perceived as something of a troublemaker by the establishment. When he took part in a BLM protest in June 2020, he said clearly: “Black lives have always mattered. We have always been important. We have always meant something. We have always succeeded regardless. And now is the time. I ain’t waiting. I’m speaking to you from my heart. I don’t know if I’m going to have a career after this.”
Taking on the role of Leroy Logan was a no-brainer for the actor, who not only gets to work with his countrymen and women (almost the entire cast and crew is British, he gets to tell a story that he was too young to know about growing up (John was born in 1992, almost 20 years after the anthology is set).
“Red, White And Blue is about this young black British man who is struggling with his decisions. He’s actually come to the point where he no longer wants to be a scientist, and he wants to affect his community in a very different way: By joining the police force,” says John. “It’s a severely complicated time when he enters the force, it’s severely racially polarised. This story, which is one of Steve McQueen’s series, basically follows Leroy through self-discovery in an environment that isn’t used to him, isn’t used to his kind, his culture.”
It’s one thing to read the character description – “black man joins police force to reform racial aggression” – and another to play it. But John got clear instruction and information from Leroy himself about what drove him to do what he did. “The most important thing in creating this onscreen character, who’s a real person, is to understand his decision making,” says John. “You’ve got to understand, this is a black man that decided, especially when his community and people didn’t really support this institution, to join. Especially when your father goes through this traumatic experience in which he is assaulted by police officers. You still decide to join. I needed to understand that man, the man who is strong enough to swallow the conflicts and give us (the black community) the representation that we needed. Understanding his intention, why he did this, when I would’ve done that in the situation, really informed me about Leroy and what I needed to do to portray him.”
But Small Axe is not just a collection of films about racial struggle and prejudice. Red, White And Blue, for example, “Has this father-son story, where they bond and connect together in the midst of this very difficult time. There is more going on around Leroy than just his work,” adds John. “I didn’t know much about Leroy and his story, especially not in the intricate way that the script explores it.”
Man in the mirror
For his role, John spoke to a number of people who were alive in the ’70s and experienced not just police brutality, but racially motivated aggression by society as a whole. He read Leroy’s autobiographical book, Closing Ranks: My Life as a Cop, and met the man himself.
It wasn’t through research for the role that John actually spoke to Leroy – it was a friend hook-up. “Leroy has done a lot of work with youth groups and drama clubs. A friend told me one day, ‘Oh yeah, I know him. He’s one of my mentors.’ It was weird because through our combined work around the city, with youth groups and talks and these things, we just never met. We should’ve met but it wasn’t right until this project,” says John.
Watch Small Axe, Mondays from 16 November on BBC Brit (DStv 12) at 21:00, 24 hours after the British premiere in this order:
- MangroveMonday, 16 November – the Mangrove Nine are put on trial following a police clash and the resulting court case was judicial acknowledgement of racial hatred within the police force
- Lovers RockMonday, 23 November – relationships are both borne and torn apart following a house party
- EducationMonday, 30 November – schoolboy Kingsley isn’t a troublemaker, he just needs special attention. However, thanks to an unofficial segregation policy, he’s put at a disadvantage and steered in the direction of a troubled adulthood
- AlexWheatle Monday, 7 December – foster child Alex is shuffled around the city from home to home and only later in life, once he’s arrested for protesting, does he confront the institution and its prejudices as he becomes an award-winning writer
- Red, White And BlueMonday, 14 December – Leroy Logan becomes a police officer in an attempt to reform and rehabilitate racial prejudice
How to watch Small Axe online
With the DStv app, the same channels you watch on your decoder at home are available for you to stream online at https://now.dstv.com/, or using the DStv app on your phone.