It would hardly be righ to expect a filmmaker to crank out what amounts to five consecutive feature films all right in a row and have absolutely no detectable drop in quality, so the fact that Small Axe, Steve McQueen's five-part TV anthology, couldn't keep knocking out one Lovers Rock after another isn't surprising, and to hell with me if I find it disappointing. That being said, Red, White and Blue definitely feels like the first part of Small Axe that McQueen and company have approached without much in the way of artistic ingenuity or rhetorical boldness. It is a pretty straightforward message movie - a message movie biopic, no less, though entirely free of anything bad promised by that word, and really the only reason I bring it up at all is because it certainly matters that this is a true story. Red, White and Blue is about Leroy Logan, a native Londoner of Jamaican descent, who in 1983 joined the Metropolitan Police after starting a career as a research scientist, in the hope of correcting the outrages he had witnessed and experienced as a dark-skinned man in the face of a racist police force. Before his retirement, Logan was recognised multiple times for his contributions to improving the culture of the police, though whether he in fact fixed it is up for debate. Red, White and Blue would certainly suggest that he did not, on the grounds that it is not possible for an individual to fix something as all-consuming and inherently rotten as a systemically racist police force.

It's a good story, and McQueen and co-writer Courttia Newland have made the right choices in shaping it to guide us towards a particular interpretation, so let me not start out with too much grousing about how unexcitingly straightforward this is. Especially not since there is one unabashed reason to cheer heartily for Red, White and Blue: it gives John Boyega something interesting do as an actor, after all those years trapped in Star Wars Hell. Before he got sucked into the gravitational pull of The Force Awakens, Boyega had one outright terrific performance under his belt, in 2011's Attack the Block, and that's... kind of been it? I haven't seen every last thing he's been in, but he hasn't been racing from one brilliantly-written role to the next (apologies to the Pacific Rim: Uprising fans, of whom I'm sure there must at least be a handful). Red, White and Blue gives him a hell of a lot to tear into, and he does wonderful things with it. The arc of the story is fairly tightly constrained: as a child, Leroy was harassed by the cops for avowedly no reason other than his skin color, and several years later, he still remembers how miserable and low that made him feel. When his father (Steve Toussaint) is physically assaulted, Leroy finally decides that enough is enough, and enrolls in the force to reform it from the inside; while he is smart as hell and capable of everything the job throws at him, he is constantly belittled and passed over in his early time (months? years?) on the force. This does nothing to improve his relationship with his father, who was furious that his own son would join the despised police. Eventually, Leroy blows up, and this doesn't make anything better. It doesn't make anything worse. It just affirms that the system is so rotten that it will take more than good intentions to do a damn thing about it.

It's a slender arc, but Boyega finds it and teases it out and does simply wonderful things with it at every turn. The big shouting moments are obviously there to be indulged in by an halfway decent actor, and Boyega gets all the flailing spittle and histrionically-stressed syllables down cold, but this is pretty obviously the least-interesting part of his performance; even in the climactic shouting scene, the most interesting thing he does is the ironically little brightness he puts on his character's exit line, and the second-most-interesting is when he suddenly calms down furiously, if you get my meaning, when the only other brown-skinned man on the force, an Pakistani named Asif Kamali (Assad Zaman) tries to pull him away. But most of what Boyega is up to is keeping things clamped down. Red, White and Blue is mostly about all the moments where Leroy works on the assumption that if he's pleasant, smart, agreeable, and good, he will dissolve the racism in front of him, and Boyega approaches less as naïveté than as willful, stubborn optimism, a goodwill that costs Leroy a great deal to maintain as he swallows down all his disgust and frustration at the insults. The actor is playing a conspicuous absence of emotions, so that in the moments when he can't keep all of that tamped down, it's less of a shock than a relief. And he turns everything into a kind of existential sadness for the closing sequence, the finest part of the whole episode, when Leroy is forced to reckon with the scale of the problem that he cannot imaginably solve just through his own grit.

Boyega's presence is all that Red, White and Blue needs to work, and it's not even all it gets. McQueen, cinematographer Shabier Kircher, and production designer Helen Scott create a cold world of gloomy whites and blues in the halls of the police station, and the police locker room that shows up in all its geometric claustrophobia to mark out the moments where Leroy's frustrations grow ever closer to the surface. The film is very squared-off, presenting rooms as boxes, and actors as clusters of depth within those boxes, with Boyega always conspicuously shoved into empty pockets, both on set and in the frame. There's a hostile, institutional quality to the compositions that makes it feel suitably uncomfortable to watch, much as it is uncomfortable to inhabit.

Compared to Mangrove (let alone Lovers Rock), McQueen doesn't seem to be stretching himself very hard, either visually or with the story. The film's way of framing its institutional spaces is extremely reminiscent of Hunger, and the feeling that we're watching very talented people on autopilot never entirely subsides. It certainly doesn't help that the scenes depicting the racist insults Leroy faces are mostly written and staged pretty much the way that these scenes always get staged in movies like this (though there is one very strong moment in the locker room where McQueen delays revealing the presence of a graffiti slur until it can serve as the climax of the scene  rather than the cause of it - to us, at least). Small Axe, as a project, is an avowedly political work of art, with an unmistakable message to communicate, but Red, White and Blue is the first time that it allows the blunt delivery of a message to overwhelm it as a drama. And while it is the second-longest episode, at 80 minutes, it has to rush pretty quickly and leave some mildly confusing scene transitions in its wake to cram everything in there.

Even so, Leroy Logan is a worth subject of screen commemoration, and Boyega's performance is so righteously furious that Red, White and Blue still has a quickly-beating heart even when it's at its most straightforward and obvious. It's a far cry from the best of Small Axe, but it does what it sets out to do with admirable rage.