Education concludes the anthology this Sunday night, providing a 70s Polaroid of systemic racism snaking through the British school system. This is McQueen’s most autobiographical effort, infusing by his own experience growing up in a similar environment as a dyslexic, British Black child.
Newcomer Kenya Sandy plays 12-year-old Kingsley, who struggles to read. In a painful scene at the start, he’s made to read out in front of the class and the teacher calls him a ‘blockhead’. Because of Kingsley’s low IQ results, he’s moved to a special school for the ‘educationally subnormal’, in which nothing of any significance is taught at all.
Like the other Small Axe films Education pushes underacknowledged histories to the frontlines, and brutally teaches why and how they happen. McQueen digs at the root of Black suppression: examining the wiping out of their education, which facilitates a devastating domino effect. It ensures unambitious, insignificant career and life prospects, even for intelligent Black people.
Kingsley is one such smart student, quietly segregated from a school run by white teachers. He has lofty ambitions to be an astronaut (as well as play for Spurs), the film opening in the immersive darkness of a cinematic talk on space. Awe and wonder spread across his face, lit by the stars of the Andromeda Galaxy. The racial realities don’t even occur to him until a white classmate remarks: ‘You can’t have a Black man in space’ (this being the decade before Arnaldo Tamayo Méndez and Guion Bluford went up).
Sharlene Whyte stars as Kingsley's militant mother Agnes. Photo: BBC
His troubles at school are treated with little patience by his militant mother Agnes, sternly played by Sharlene Whyte, who calls him ‘nothing but a heap of trouble’. She’s burdened by her long hours as a nurse. When she catches him drawing instead of sleeping, she spanks him. His carpenter father Esmond (Daniel Francis) is set on Kingsley learning his trade. Neither comprehend their son’s potential, nor does their daughter Stephanie (Tamara Lawrence) who aspires to be a fashion designer.
The raucous scenes inside the ‘special school’ straddle the dire and the ridiculous. The classroom is mostly empty of teachers, allowing the students to run around and wreak havoc on the place. Even when the teachers do appear, they’re useless and/or racist.
One of them spends an entire lesson clumsily performing House of the Rising Sun on his guitar. It’s funny at first, then the camera floats over the bemused, uneducated children as they’re subjected to nonsense instead of knowledge.
They’re dulling kids’ minds, and that burns as much as the aggression and violence in Mangrove, Alex Wheatle and Red, White and Blue. Education is more subtle, showing the crushing impact of the absence of learning
This is eventually rectified by a local group of West Indian women, recognising these faults in the system. They emphasise the deeply rooted cultural bias that they, as Black people, face in this country. ‘If we do nothing, nothing will change,’ one of them says. This is the key message of Small Axe: the need to chip away at a system that’s against them, that wants them to fail. McQueen's created a beautiful, revolutionary series/collection of films and Education is a fitting conclusion.
Small Axe: Education airs on Sunday 13 December at 9pm on BBC One
|What||Small Axe: Education, BBC One review|
13 Dec 20 – 13 Dec 21, ON BBC ONE
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