I’ve been a huge fan of director Steve McQueen’s (no relation to the star of Bullitt and The Great Escape) minimalistic approach to staging scenes from the moment I first laid eyes on Hunger’s spellbinding eighteen-minute long two-shot. He is quite possibly the least wasteful filmmaker I have ever encountered; he never passes up the opportunity to tell the story from a single camera angle if he can get away with it, preserving the emotional flow of the narrative by avoiding excessive cutting and unnecessary coverage. This “less-is-more” philosophy is at its most purposeful in Red, White and Blue, in which it is utilized to emphasize the horrors of systemic racism.
For the movie’s central characters—West Indian immigrants inhabiting London circa the 1980s—police brutality and racial profiling are an inevitable and inescapable fact of life; it isn’t a question if they will be “randomly” stopped and frisked or assaulted with truncheons for “resisting arrest,” but when. McQueen doesn’t dramatize or sensationalize these acts of violence, instead observing them from a distance—lending them an atmosphere of detachment, resignation, and hopelessness that merely serves to make them feel even more disturbing and harrowing.
This oppressively bleak atmosphere is somewhat alleviated by the optimism of the protagonist (played by a perfectly cast John Boyega), a constable of Jamaican descent that aspires to reform the corrupt Metropolitan Police Force from within its ranks. Of course, his efforts to bridge the gap between law enforcement and his community turn him into the ultimate outsider: his fellow officers see only his skin color, while his neighbors and former friends see only his uniform. The tension between his dogged determination to affect positive change and his frustration with the blatant hostility he faces from both sides of the racial conflict adds humanity, complexity, and nuance to what could easily have been an overly simplistic morality play.
And therein lies McQueen’s greatest strength: despite his stylistic restraint, his themes are anything but shallow.