Star Wars actor John Boyega is back with The Force. The police force.
And Oscar-winning filmmaker Steve McQueen is delighted to have caught him at just the right moment.
‘He was ready to get back into acting, and not just reacting,’ he said, referring to the South-East London-born actor’s time spent in a galaxy far, far away, playing Finn, the storm-trooper-turned Rebel hero
Star line-up: John Boyega, Amarah-Jae St Aubyn and Michael Ward
Michael Ward and Amarah-Jae St Aubyn pictured above
Boyega stars in McQueen’s film Red, White And Blue as Leroy Logan who, in the early 1980s, was the poster boy for people of colour joining the Metropolitan Police.
Logan went from working as a police scientist to beat bobby; finally retiring at the rank of Superintendent in 2013, after a 30-year career.
Boyega burrows into the part of Logan, trying to hold back the bile building up from the institutional racism he faced from some colleagues. ‘You want a star who’s dangerous,’ McQueen said, ‘and John’s dangerous.’
Boyega revealed during the summer that he’d felt marginalised while working on the Star Wars trilogy. McQueen told me many black actors are ‘frightened to express themselves, for fear of not being hired’.
But the director believes it was Boyega’s anger that helped power his performance in Red, White And Blue — one of five films that form his Small Axe collection, produced by BBC Films.
McQueen has felt frustration, too. He began thinking about the project, based on ‘stories that would have been swept under the carpet’, 11 years ago. They will finally be seen on BBC1 and Amazon Prime Video from mid-November.
‘They’re feature films that happen to be on television,’ he told me when we met at the Dean Street Townhouse in Soho. Indeed, two are to be shown at the British Film Institute’s London Film Festival.
Mangrove, one of the year’s best films, opens at the London Film Festival on Wednesday. It charts the police harassment of Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes), and the targeting of his Caribbean restaurant, Mangrove, in Notting Hill, in the late Sixties.
The intimidation led, eventually, to a landmark case at the Old Bailey, in which nine activists faced trumped-up charges of inciting a riot at a protest against the police’s behaviour. ‘It was a black-owned business, and the authorities didn’t like it,’ McQueen said.
The director believes it was Boyega’s anger that helped power his performance in Red, White And Blue — one of five films that form his Small Axe collection, produced by BBC Films
McQueen cast a sublime line-up of actors to portray the defendants, including Letitia Wright, star of the blockbuster Black Panther film, as an actual Black Panther leader (Altheia Jones-Lecointe)
McQueen cast a sublime line-up of actors to portray the defendants, including Letitia Wright, star of the blockbuster Black Panther film, as an actual Black Panther leader (Altheia Jones-Lecointe); and Malachi Kirby as Darcus Howe, a veteran campaigner for equal justice. I’m sad that Howe, who died in 2017, isn’t around to see Kirby’s scorching portrait of him.
So far I’ve seen three of the Small Axe pictures; the third being Lovers Rock (another LFF title), which McQueen explained ‘was my Aunt Molly’s story’. She would creep out of the house and sneak off to blues parties, where she and her friends would dance the night away.
‘In the morning, she’d climb back in through the window . . . and then go to church.’
The film stars Amarah-Jae St Aubyn and Micheal Ward, and there’s a great scene of them smooching to Janet Kay’s reggae hit Silly Games.
All the films feature carefully chosen tracks, encompassing the history of reggae and soul and edited to fit McQueen’s excellent narratives.
Clare Dunne, a terrific actress, gives a tremendous central performance in director Phyllida Lloyd’s moving new film Herself . . . which Dunne also wrote. She plays Sandra, a mother of two whose husband beats her. In one devastating scene, we see how one of the daughters is utterly traumatised after witnessing her daddy assault her mother.
However, in Lloyd’s sure hands the film shows us that Sandra has an inner strength, and a fierce determination to protect her children. There are moments of genuine tenderness, such as when Sandra is comforting her girls in a hotel room they’re forced to shelter in, and when she finds a benefactor in the shape of the local doctor (played by Harriet Walter).
A friend of her late mother’s, the doctor not only employs her; but in a moment of glorious generosity, helps her fund a self-build home.
The film doesn’t suggest that every battered woman is going to find a fairy godmother. But it does offer hope.
■ Herself will screen at the BFI London Film Festival from Wednesday, before going on general release in cinemas from October 16.
Watch out for…
Radha Blank, whose screen debut as writer, star and director, The Forty-Year-Old Version, launches on Netflix today. It’s a semi-fictionalised account of Blank’s struggles as a playwright in New York City; and her engrossing movie, shot in black and white, almost as a hymn to the location of her rejection, is often funny at her own expense.
I can see why she has said that Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend is one of her favourite movies.
Radha Blank, whose screen debut as writer, star and director, The Forty-Year-Old Version, launches on Netflix today
It’s a semi-fictionalised account of Blank’s struggles as a playwright in New York City
Her engrossing movie, shot in black and white, almost as a hymn to the location of her rejection, is often funny at her own expense
Blank creates a hip-hop persona — called RadhaMUSprime — not so much to improve her career, but more for meditation. I know a little about that whole downtown-uptown theatre scene in NYC, and Blank superbly captures all of its petty absurdities. She lacerates the condescending theatre chiefs (all male) who mock her, then block her progress.
Blank developed the picture’s structure over several years, before workshopping it at the Sundance Institute, and it really is a stunning achievement for a first-timer.
I did catch one of her plays nine years ago at the National Black Theatre in Harlem. It was called Seed, and I gotta say that Ms Blank makes a much better movie.