In several installments of Steve McQueen’s “Small Axe” anthology, the racism leveled against London’s West Indian population is an overt threat. In “Education,” it simmers in the shadows until someone dares to call it out. An inspiring slice of kitchen sink drama, McQueen’s illuminating look at a clandestine segregation policy in the London school district of the early ‘70s takes the perspective of an innocent child, and wouldn’t look out of place with the sort of social realist exposés Ken Loach has been making for over 50 years. In this case, however, this minuscule but affecting hourlong story is an extension of the “Small Axe” mission to fill a historical gap deserving of greater scrutiny, and achieves that goal by serving as a kind of education itself.
When we first meet 12-year-old Kingsley (promising newcomer Kenyah Sandy), he’s entranced by a planetarium filled with stars, his eyes consumed with the possibilities of an unknown world. But in the context of his mostly white school, he’s treated as a nuisance unworthy of the curriculum: Scolded for reading slowly during English class and tossed out of a music session for getting a touch too bawdy with his classmates, the bespectacled child has been ostracized by the system even before it kicks him out.
Kingsley’s overworked mother Agnes (Sharlene Whyte) barely has time for son’s struggles until she’s called into the principal’s office and told that — due to Kingsley’s poor performance on a culturally-biased IQ test — he’s being transferred to a “special” school for slow learners. By now, the steady accumulation of snapshots from Kingsley’s classroom experiences make the bullshit clear as day, and the angsty kid knows it. His mother, however, seems less invested in making sense out of the situation than letting it run its course. Kingsley might be “a bit lively, perhaps,” she concedes, but assumes he’s “nothing but a heap of trouble” who deserves whatever the professionals deem is worth his time.
That assumption evolves over the course of “Education,” as McQueen and co-writer Alastair Siddons gradually expand their scope. Thrust into a school where the teachers barely pay attention, Kingsley’s on the verge of an aimless future when activists intervene, and the context of his troubles open up. While Kingsley’s plight is fictional, his conundrum draws on events that came to light in 1971, when London’s local education authority used IQ tests to toss West Indian children into so-called “educationally sub-normal schools,” effectively making them unqualified for higher education down the line. “The Doulton Report,” which expressed to desire to excise West Indian children from quality schooling, lead to enough outrage to kickstart the Black Education Movement. “Education” captures its early stirrings from the inside out.
Kingsley’s story starts to open up when, in the midst of wandering away from an abandoned classroom, he runs into Hazel (Naomi Ackie), who identifies herself as a Guyanese psychologist. In truth, she’s an undercover activist scoping out the system; her research leads colleague Mrs. Morrison (Jade Anouka) to show up at Kingsley’s home and confront his mother about the corruption at hand. ‘It’s not a school if the teachers don’t teach you,” she says, handing a pamphlet to a skeptical Agnes. From there, “Education” oscillates between Kingsley’s recurring frustrations in the classroom with his mother’s gradual awakening to the challenge at hand, as she realizes that his entire life could be ruined if the educational machinery has its way. As mother and son, Whyte and Sandy give remarkable performances steeped in twin struggles to understand a process designed to keep them in the dark. It’s only when she’s told “the system is designed to go against” her child’s needs, then attends a group meeting of other Black parents in similar situations, that she finally sees the big picture: Kingsley needs help.
“Education” is built around the arrival of that realization, and the solution that comes out of it, and despite a few heavy-handed exchanges about the stakes at hand it churns along with a developing sense of purpose. As a whole, the concise feels modest compared to the more sweeping systematic indictments found throughout “Small Axe,” but it remains an engaging form of cultural advocacy that magnifies an underserved chapter in British history by rooting it in a touching personal story.
McQueen and cinematographer Shabier Kirschner mostly play it straight, with the same sturdy period details found in other installments. As a whole, “Education” is McQueen at his most mannered. However, he does sneak in one of the more ambitious sequences in the entire anthology, second only to the “Silly Games” dance of “Lovers Rock,” once again using music to serve a point. While the a cappella of “Lovers Rock” embodied Black joy by rooting viewers in the power of the moment, here we’re forced to sit with bored students as their teacher wastes class time by strumming out a terrible rendition of “House of the Rising Sun.” It’s hilarious, tragic, exasperating, and ultimately annoying — exactly as it should be to convey the unique challenges at hand. Emerging from the other side of that atrocious performance, viewers are left rooting for someone to do something about it, establishing the catharsis when someone finally does.
Just as McQueen’s earlier “Small Axe” entry “Alex Wheatle” sets the stage for its title character’s career, “Education” operates as a prologue of sorts: It builds to Agnes’ decision to write new Secretary of State for Education and Science Margaret Thatcher, sowing the seeds of the Education Reform Act she would sign into law as Prime Minister some 15 years later, but doesn’t travel that far. Instead, the story provides a glimpse of one boy filled with potential, if only society would give him the chance to fulfill it. The drama is bookended by the image of Kingsley gazing at the cosmos, lost in the moment and dreaming of a world that lingers beyond the frame. That encompasses the mission of “Small Axe” as a whole, which celebrates the ambition of looking up, no matter the cost.
“Education” airs on BBC on December 13, 2020 and streams on Amazon Prime Video starting December 18, 2020.