‘Small Axe’: John Boyega and the Search for ‘Real, Significant, Proactive Work’

Comprised of five films, “Small Axe,” Steve McQueen’s new series for Amazon Prime Video, tells a multitude of stories that chart Black British culture and experience. The historical anthology — consisting of “Mangrove” (November 20), “Lovers Rock” (November 27), “Red, White and Blue” (December 4), “Alex Wheatle” (December 11), and “Education” (December 18), all directed by McQueen — is pioneering in its depiction of these previously untold tales. Premiering on November 20, one film will be released every week, and the collection should be a compelling and necessary watch.

“Red, White and Blue” is particularly poignant at this time because it deals with race relations between the police and the Black community in Britain, along with one man’s efforts to change institutional racism from within. It focuses on Leroy Logan — one of the first Black British police officers to join the force in the face of racism — and stars John Boyega in his first role since 2019’s “Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker” where he played the wide-eyed, boyish extrovert Finn. Logan is an entirely different kind of character with a base and maturity, astuteness and subtlety. And for Boyega, this was an opportunity to take on an entirely different role and to work with McQueen for the first time.

“Steve McQueen was definitely the primary draw,” he said. “I’ve been watching so many of my colleagues, like Daniel Kaluuya, work with Steve and I’ve always wanted the opportunity. And then after that, it was just the story. Leroy Logan’s a phenomenal man. I saw it as a challenge, a very isolating part to take. And that’s something that I just definitely wanted to explore. And finally, it would be character.”

He also outlined that it’s becoming really important to him to tell stories highlighting Black history, something which he’s been able to do in “Red, White and Blue.” Logan joined the police force after his father was assaulted by two officers, much to his parents’ shock and frustration.

The drama opens with police harassing a young Logan, an experience Boyega has known. “I’ve been stopped and searched,” he said. “My dad as well. Growing up in Peckham, and you’re Black, you absolutely would have had run-ins with the police. Sometimes violent confrontations.”

To prepare for the role, Boyega met with Logan, admitting he hadn’t known much about him before playing him, and they got to know each other well. “He’s a very proper man, his mannerisms,” he said. “He folds his shirts, and makes sure that everything is in line, and pretty proper, and clean. He’s very well put together, well-spoken, but at the same time could be street with it. So it’s just about figuring out those nuances, as well.”

The actor said it was important for him to understand Logan’s thought process in joining an inherently racist institution, knowing that, as a Black man, he would face barriers and obstacles along the way. “I wanted to understand the man behind that decision, how the man was strong enough to take on that kind of conflict in order to give the police force the proper kind of representation it needed,” he said. “Leroy actually had quite a comfortable life and could have just lived his life being a scientist, made his money, moved on. He actually chose the obstacle. He chose the challenge. And so for me, that difference was very important.”

They even discovered that they had a history in common. “I realized that some of the several youth groups I was involved in — Brixton, Edgar, Leeway — Logan was also connected to them in the past,” Boyega said. “So in a way we kind of crossed paths. We were just going, ‘Oh, and you went to that school.’ Yeah. Then, ‘I was there this time, I was there that time.’ And then that led to much more serious topics about what he was thinking in several different situations I’d previously read in the script.”

And he finally got to work with McQueen, which he described as a wonderful experience. When they first met, they had a very lengthy conversation about each other, and McQueen’s vision for the project.

“Steve always starts with a ‘How are you?’ And that ‘How are you?’ becomes a one-hour conversation before you even get to talking about the project and role,” Boyega said. “And also, his thoughts for the whole series, the whole experience. What he wanted to do with formatting, the process he would take. But I found it to be very revolutionary, very fantastic, and a new and fresh approach to filmmaking. Especially given the current time of this pandemic and racial justice protests everywhere.”

Boyega has been quite vocal this year on those racial justice protests. During his Black Lives Matter speech in June, he gave a powerful address to the crowd. “I’m speaking to you from my heart,” he told hundreds of people gathered in Hyde Park. “I don’t know if I’m going to have a career after this, but fuck that.”

Asked if he is still concerned about what the speech might mean for his career, Boyega said, “Definitely, I still think about that possibility.” He then explained that just because he’s done some major movies being doesn’t mean he can’t be blacklisted. “People say things like, ‘But you’ve been in this Hollywood movie and that other thing…’ But it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to have career longevity. Anything can happen.”

He also boldly spoke out against Disney’s treatment of people of color in the recent “Star Wars” franchise reboot. “What I would say to Disney is ‘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,’” he said in a September interview with GQ UK. “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.”

He doesn’t regret the comments, looking back on them two months later. He said he’s starting to realize that it’s important for him to be proactive and provocative.

“You learn so much about an experience and it definitely affects the way you do work, the kind of conversations you have prior to joining any project, I’m learning,” he said. “And also, it just helps with what kind of industry I’d like to see. I can’t merely point out the issues and not be doing real, significant, proactive work. So I’m more fixated on the work side by making sure that these kinds of environments are — especially where I am involved — as good as possible for everyone.”

“Small Axe” will debut on Amazon Prime Video in the U.S. with “Mangrove” on Friday, November 20; the other four entries will premiere on the streaming service weekly. “Red, White and Blue” is set for Friday, December 4.

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