How John Boyega Tackled Racism Playing a Metro Police Officer in ‘Small Axe’ and Marching For Black Lives Matter

TheWrap awards magazine: “It was a very organic, emotional moment for me,” the “Red, White and Blue” actor said about protesting

John Boyega Small Axe 9G3A6187 Feature Image
"Small Axe" / Amazon Studios

This story about John Boyega and “Small Axe” first appeared in the Limited Series & TV Movies issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.

Early in “Red, White, and Blue,” a young research biologist in London tells his stunned father that he plans to abandon his current career path and become a Metropolitan police officer. The film, the third in director Steve McQueen’s formidable five-movie anthology “Small Axe,” portrays the real-life experience of Leroy Logan, who joined the London force in 1983, facing racism and intolerance as a Black man in a nearly all-white institution.

It was that moment between father and son that actor John Boyega brings up first when asked what moments in the script spiritually connected him to the role. “I vividly remember having a similar conversation with my dad when I told him I wanted to forgo university and go to L.A. for acting,” said Boyega, who was born in 1992 to British-Nigerian parents in South London. “It was hard at first because my dad was like, ‘What the f–k are you gonna do?’ That is such a specific experience, especially between a Black father and a Black son. It has its roots in our culture and what it means to grow into a man and make your own choices.”

Boyega’s parents eventually supported his career decision, as Logan’s parents do in the film. But while talking to McQueen about the project during preproduction, the actor expressed how deeply that aspect resonated with him. “Steve spent a lot of time talking to me about the theme of fathers and sons,” he said. “He told me that when your parents give you their blessing, you feel like you can rule the world.”

McQueen also enthusiastically drew an unambiguous connection between Logan, a Black policeman who joined the force, and Boyega, a Black actor who followed parts in indie films like “Attack the Block” by, well, joining the Force in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” the first of three films in which his character, Finn, had increasingly less to do. “John Boyega and Leroy Logan: Two men who are poster boys,” McQueen said. “John is literally the poster boy for Star Wars. Leroy was literally the poster boy for the Metropolitan Police to recruit minority police officers. And those same institutions disappoint them. They never reach their potential, for no reasons of their own.”

Boyega, who has spoken of his frustration with his character arc in Star Wars, recalled that McQueen had made that comparison in their early conversations. “And I agree 100% that it felt like there was a very thin line there between myself and my role as Leroy,” he said. “But it didn’t influence me as much as you’d think, because on the set I was completely focused on Leroy’s actual experience. It took me a while to catch up on the similarities.”

However, Boyega did find his voice in a profoundly public way in 2020. Mere weeks after filming halted on “Red, White, and Blue” due to COVID-19, Boyega joined a Black Lives Matter march in London, the first protest of any kind the actor had attended in his life. He delivered a speech directly from his heart, openly weeping during his remarks. “Every Black person here remembers the time when another person reminded you that you were Black,” he said to the crowd. “I need you to understand how painful this s–t is.”

Asked about his most lasting memories from that day, Boyega turned quieter. “You hear about protests and the glamorous side of it, because when you’re an actor everybody gives you a pat on the back. But when I was there on the ground, it was real. It was a very organic, emotional moment for me.”

It also connected him further with Leroy Logan, who founded a social justice organization named Voyage in 1998. (Logan retired from the police force in 2013; he was awarded an “order of chivalry” by Queen Elizabeth in 2001 for services to policing.) “Self-realization is the first step,” Boyega said. “Motivation can really be sparked from that. But you have to go silent, in a world of Twitter and Instagram, to seek the truth. That’s super important, and I’m not going to let myself forget it.”

Read more from the Limited Series & TV Movies issue here

Cynthia Erivo EmmyWrap cover
Cynthia Erivo on the front cover of the June 15, 2021 issue of the EmmyWrap Limited Series & Movies magazine


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