Education is Small Axe‘s punctuation mark and the film that brings the entire project to an inspired and even celebratory conclusion.
Regardless of whether one thinks of Small Axe as a collection of films or a sort of variegated television miniseries event (either way, its structure and release are fairly unique for both mediums), when taken in full, it is, to say the least, a project of great ambition. But, as is so often the case, ambition comes with the burden of messiness, and these films can’t entirely get out from under it. Despite being afforded actual, substantial feature-length runtimes, Mangrove and Red, White and Blue both seemed to conclude just as they reached the heart of their respective conflicts, their scripts unable to capture the full extent of the histories explored. Small Axe’s fourth entry, Alex Wheatle, suffered from similar issues, though with its thin 66-minute runtime, it’s easier to pinpoint exactly how that film was overwhelmed. With this in mind, it’s easy to see why Lovers Rock has been a consistent critical favorite since it opened NYFF 2020, its linearity and concision (a 24-hour period scaled to a 68-minute runtime) an appealing contrast to the drifting focuses of the other films; in other words, it’s a whole, succinct film.
Thankfully, Small Axe doesn’t wrap without reattempting this approach, and as it turns out, the second go-around is even more successful. Education, the fifth and final film of this quintet, is its most direct and quite immediately painful. Like Lovers Rock, Education is not literally based on real historical persons (unlike the other three movies), and instead uses a fictionalized narrative and characters to articulate the scope of systemic racism that grips Britain’s education system. Once again taking place in the 1970s, Education tracks 12-year-old Kingsley Smith, the child of working-class Caribbean immigrants, who is abruptly shuttled from the U.K.’s public school system and into an ESN (“educationally subnormal”) school without any real consultation with his parents. It quickly becomes clear to both Kingsley and the audience that these ostensible special education schools are merely buildings to stow away children who have been deemed too “challenging” for teachers and administration to handle, which of course is generally coded language disguising purely racist motivation. Kingsley (who is implied to be dyslexic) falls victim to this system, but his parents, exhausted and overworked, initially side with the school, refusing to admit to themselves that these institutions could commit themselves to such a cruel, segregatory practice.
Education otherwise covers the work done by activists and educators within the British West Indian community at this time, based on the efforts detailed in Bernard Coard’s book How the West Indian Child is Made Educationally Sub-normal in the British School System: The Scandal of the Black Child in Schools in Britain. McQueen uses Education to pay homage to the empowering qualities of this text, but the film is even more so a celebration of the radical action taken by the organizers who rallied this community of parents and infiltrated these schools to confirm their patterns of blatant abuse. If Education has a major point of intrigue, it’s the implied autobiography of this particular narrative, as McQueen has publicly discussed his own similar experiences in an ESN school long before this project was put together. Ultimately, one must respect that McQueen did not position this as literal autobiography and that we shouldn’t be reading it as such, but it is hard to ignore how much more confident Education’s script is than those that precede it. While Mangrove and Red, White and Blue spend a lot of time feeling out their various parties and the webs of conflict that connect and ensnare them, unable to commit to prioritizing one over another, Education avoids this problem and lines up its drama seamlessly. The payoff is extraordinary, sending us out into the pure possibility of the cosmos — an inspired, optimistic endpoint for a series that otherwise acknowledges that the injustices it depicts have yet to be significantly undone.
You can currently stream Steve McQueen’s Education on Amazon.