CAST: Kenyah Sandy, Sharlene Whyte, Tamara Lawrance, Daniel Francis, Josette Simon, Ryan Masher, Naomi Ackie, Jairaj Varsani, Aiyana Goodfellow, Tabitha Byron, Jo Martin, Nathan Moses, Kemal Sylvester, Kate Dickie, Stewart Wright, Nigel Boyle, Roshawn Hewitt, Adrian Rawlins, Trevor Laird, Jade Anouka, Sam Fourness, Ralph Davis, Kayla Meikle, Temirlan Blaev, Brooke Haynes
RUNNING TIME: 63 mins
BASICALLY…: A 12-year-old black student (Sandy) is pulled into a veiled system of segregation when he is sent to a less advantageous school…
NOW FOR THE REVIEW…
It technically lasted for only five episodes – for reference, the average for most British TV series is about six per season – but Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology has shook the world with its tough, emotional and sometimes euphoric tales of prejudice and injustice in London’s West Indies community during the 20th century. Over the course of this series, McQueen has directed and co-written stories about the Mangrove Nine, a dance party, one of the first leading black policemen, the early life of author Alex Wheatle, and now a coming-of-age tale with severe underlying consequences, all of which have dealt with heavy topics revolving around racism, segregation and an unhealthy bias against the struggling black community, and each one of them has been outstanding on their own terms as either a compelling character piece, or simply an excuse to groove your body along to some soulful music.
With Education, the fifth and final entry in the anthology, McQueen brings his recurring themes full circle by focusing on how such prejudice can begin even from an early age. We see events play out from the perspective of young Kingsley (a compelling Kenyah Sandy), the first and only time in this series we get to experience from a juvenile pair of eyes, and while the racism is not as immediately apparent as it has been in other entries, that doesn’t mean it’s any less overt, and if anything it hints at a far more damaging attempt at discrimination than we’ve yet seen in these films.
Kingsley, at first, seems like a normal enough kid. He expresses a bright interest in space and dreams of being an astronaut, he’s happy hanging out with his friends at school, and at home things appear civil enough, with both of his parents including mother Agnes (Sharlene Whyte) often out working and not paying much attention to their offspring. However, he has great difficulty in lessons, particularly when he struggles to read (heavily implied to be a simple case of dyslexia, a condition that McQueen himself has), and the school uses both this and his apparently low IQ scores as an excuse to send him to a “special” school; “special” is in quotes, because there is nothing remotely appropriate about this new establishment, where classrooms are often unsupervised or padded with useless reading of very basic children’s books. Kingsley’s protests at first go unheard, even by his occupied parents, but the interference of local community activists – among them Lady Macbeth breakout Naomi Ackie as a kindly child psychologist – forces his family to finally see what is happening to their bright young boy.
As we learn, through strongly worded pamphlets and emotional community meetings, Kingsley has been placed in an “educationally subnormal” school as part of an old system designed to prevent black students from receiving the full dose of education they need to build successful careers; instead, these schools have “teachers” who hold extremely little regard for their developmentally-challenged students, even using them as a bored audience for their dreadful and overlong guitar solos. McQueen, alert as ever, does a subtle hit job on the deeply flawed methods of these schools, from treating them like pre-school children to casually dropping racist remarks right in front of them, but also points out the negligence of parents who, for whatever reason, stay firmly ignorant about the level of education their children are receiving. Whyte’s Agnes, already overworked in her job as a nurse, has little time or patience to deal with her son’s growing troubles at school, and the actress brilliantly conveys her character’s stubborn frustration through sharp outbursts (wince in horror as she beats Kingsley for the mere crime of staying up late in bed) which soften once she truly begins to understand the things her son is going through. Nevertheless, her initial refusal to see the truth is ultimately part of the problem, as the system in place is so complicated that she figures it’s not even worth bothering to look deeper into.
The film is quietly devastating, especially as we see Kingsley slowly start to adopt the mentality of his lesser educational environment, but ultimately it ends with a glimmer of hope, as McQueen sheds some light onto cultural teachings that not only prove far greater for our young protagonist, but are fascinating for other audiences to learn about as well. One of the many key strengths in all of these Small Axe films has been on showcasing parts of history and culture that mainstream consumers tend to neglect or simply choose not to acknowledge, and Education is no different in how it points out a rich tapestry of African heritage that society seems to just be farting on top of via centuries of oppression, segregation and removal from the annals of the past. What McQueen has done with this series is nothing short of magnificent; five times over, he has shown different, but thematically connected, parts of 20th century Britain that no other major filmmaker has spotlighted so heavily, all of which are passionate, soulful and utterly compelling in their own unique ways, whether it’s a courtroom drama, a couple of biopics, a simple dance movie, or a cautionary tale about the outdated systems for our future.
It’s a damn fine movie to end this anthology on, at the very least.
SO, TO SUM UP…
Education completes Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology with a quietly devastating, but ultimately hopeful, tale of a broken educational system that radically mistreated young students of colour, and the ignorance that contributed towards the thriving of it.