“Look, I don’t know if I’m going to have a career after this, but fuck that.”
John Boyega shouted these heartfelt words into a megaphone six months ago during an emotional speech at a London Black Lives Matter rally. The actor, who’d seen the new Star Wars trilogy he helped lead come to an end last year, put his heart on his sleeve in a visible act of defiant, “vital” activism. It’s been a courageous year for Boyega and—with his entry of director Steve McQueen’s Small Axe collection, Red, White and Blue, hitting Amazon this weekend—he’s looking to finish with a role that both connects to his real life and proves that he’ll have a film career for as long as he wants one.
Boyega plays Leroy Logan in Red, White and Blue, a real-life scientist who became a cop after his father was assaulted by London police. Logan, rather than simply hate the police after their racist attack, becomes dead-set on fixing them from the inside. An expectant father himself, he’s looking to the future. He speaks up, early and often, about the police’s white isolation from the city’s diverse community. He’s called a traitor by his neighbors and racial slurs by his co-workers. But he perseveres against the machine, unsure if his work even matters.
While Boyega’s Hyde Park speech, specifically its protest setting and megaphoned eloquence, draws close parallels with Small Axe’s earlier entry, Mangrove, its central desire for reform is a throughline that helps sustain and link the films. The films are obviously tied to real life—Logan and the Mangrove Nine are real people, after all, not even considering 2020’s prominent months of protests against racial injustice—and the fact that Disney blockbuster peers (and longtime friends) Boyega and Letitia Wright lead the charge makes the films all the more layered.
Boyega’s been using his AAA platform to affect change at a time when others, newly freed from a franchise, might stay quiet and collect their checks. He hasn’t minced words. “Black lives have always mattered,” Boyega said in June. “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 ain’t waiting.”
That action isn’t limited to broader statements against systemic racism. John Boyega drilled down into industry specifics, fighting back against a Disney machine that incentivizes the smiling, PR-prepped, blink-twice-if-you-need-help aura emanating from actors associated with AAA properties. His critique of how the Star Wars studio handled non-white characters—still incredibly tactful—came a few months after his protest speech.
Boyega explained that he would tell Disney “do not bring out a Black character, market them to be much more important in the franchise than they are and then have them pushed to the side. It’s not good. I’ll say it straight up.”
Like, you guys knew what to do with Daisy Ridley, you knew what to do with Adam Driver. You knew what to do with these other people, but when it came to Kelly Marie Tran, when it came to John Boyega, you know fuck all. So what do you want me to say? What they want you to say is, “I enjoyed being a part of it. It was a great experience…” Nah, nah, nah. I’ll take that deal when it’s a great experience. They gave all the nuance to Adam Driver, all the nuance to Daisy Ridley. Let’s be honest. Daisy knows this. Adam knows this. Everybody knows. I’m not exposing anything.
His perfectly rational insight (the character of Finn certainly didn’t stick the landing in anyone’s eyes) got backlash from a subsection of the internet that was likely throwing racism his way throughout the new trilogy’s run. “He should be grateful for the opportunity and the exposure that Star Wars gave him,” one EW commenter wrote. Another chimed in with “Quit being an entitled bitch.”
Thankfully, many in the industry have offered their support—even Disney sat down for “a very honest, a very transparent conversation.” That last note makes the bit of self-referential fun-poking around Star Wars in Red, White and Blue much more palatable. When Logan says he wants to join “the force,” his friend asks, “What, you gonna be a Jedi or something?” The comment section, however, reminds you more of Logan’s fellow cops.
Their unending racism grows from words to actions. The immaculate blocking of an excitingly lengthy tracking shot through a warehouse chase scene, centered on Boyega’s face without the slightest hint of backup arriving, highlights how excruciatingly alone Logan truly is. It’s how excruciatingly alone Boyega feared he’d be after speaking up. The real Logan became a police superintendent and founded the Black Police Association. By the end of Red, White and Blue, it seems like Boyega’s Logan could just as easily see his progressive ambitions burn out.
Boyega’s performance contains a vast journey from the ambitious, naive wannabe cop to the jaded, still-driven insider. He simmers with emotional uncertainty about whether or not he’s doing things the right way—for himself, the people he’s trying to help, and the organizations he’s trying to affect—as he fights a fight he’s increasingly unsure matters, but is the only one he can see. His face contains all the pain (a defiant tilt of his chin, as if to keep tears from falling out) and anger (tension barely containing a shout) of protest, wrapped inside his complex ideals.
Those ideals, trampled upon by those inside that don’t want it and those outside that can’t see its use, raise questions of futility. Can these racist systems be reformed at all or if they should be dismantled in their entirety? It’s all there in the performance, as Boyega’s hopeful face deteriorates after weathering hurt after hurt after hurt. How much shit must one well-intentioned man eat?
Boyega’s code-switching performance, peppered with nuanced deliveries, is enhanced by the supporting ensemble of family and friends. All their expectations are foisted upon him in every frame, which weights even his most lighthearted actions. “What you are doing is important, so make it count,” his wife Gretl (Antonia Thomas) tells him. That’s the pressure Boyega likely felt after speaking out over and over this year. It’s unfair to put it on prominent young Black actors, but it’s their platform which can make a big difference. That inherent unfairness—the inhumanity and indignity of taking on the additional hardship of changing the world when you already get less of a chance than everyone else—is summed in Red, White and Blue’s final exchange.
“Big change…that is a slow-turning wheel,” Logan’s father tells him. “Sometimes I think the Earth needs to be scorched,” Logan replies. “Replanted so something good will come of it.” Boyega is fighting that final impulse in the film industry, still intent on fixing things from the inside, but with a much greater level of control: Netflix and his production company signed a deal to develop a slate of non-English language films from West and East Africa. Big change may be a slow-turning wheel, but Boyega’s 2020 has set plenty in motion.
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.
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