Ever since Red, White, and Blue was moved from the final installment of Small Axe to the third film of the series, I wondered how Steve McQueen would close his anthology. Without spoiling Red, White, and Blue, it’s a film that feels right for 2020. The mood is so ambivalent as it wrestles with the limits of idealism and exceptionalism in dismantling a rigged, racist system. It would have made a somber but fitting close to a series released in a year that cops killed Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. The closing note would have been one of grim resolve.
If Red, White, and Blue feels like it’s about the present, Education seems to look toward children and a possible future. That’s an oversimplification since all of the films of Small Axe comment on the past, present, and future, obviously. But as I finished Small Axe, I felt like Mangrove and Lovers Rock offered a grounding in the past of London’s West Indian community. Alex Wheatle seemed to be about learning one’s past (even a collective history) to become yourself.
The whole of Small Axe is about generations of struggle with an eye toward a better tomorrow. With Education, we explicitly see how parents who struggled for dignity have to continue that fight for their children. The future is at stake; always has been, always will be. That’s the grim resolve of Red, White, and Blue carried on to the end, but now the focus is a child.
Education – Small Axe
Director: Steve McQueen
Release Date: December 13, 2020 (BBC One/iPlayer); December 18, 2020 (Amazon Prime Video)
Kingsley (Kenyah Sandy) is a 12 year old boy entranced by space. He draws rockets, and thinks of becoming an astronaut, but he’s struggling in school at the most fundamental level. There’s a scene early in Education in which Kingsley’s class reads Of Mice and Men, and he struggles as he tries to read. His teacher doesn’t help matters, singling him out for ridicule in front of class. Kingsley is eventually sent to a special education school, where his dreams of space will languish and die.
Rather than focused instruction, the special school is bedlam. The overcrowded roomful of children plays unsupervised, learns nothing, goes home in an even sorrier and dehumanized state than when they arrived. The special school is where one of the funniest and saddest scenes in all of Small Axe takes place. It’s the most scathing indictment of the state of education in a film full of them, and it accurately recreates the experience of watching someone who sucks at guitar stumbling over five simple open chords.
The child’s-eye-view portions of Education are well-observed. You ache as Kingsley’s humiliated in front of class, or when he hides to escape mockery from his old friends; you laugh when you listen to the bedtime prayers of Kingsley and his older sister, Stephanie (Tamara Lawrance), which contain an accurate and familiar mix of piety and selfishness. For this year’s New York Film Festival (NYFF58), McQueen got to program one of his favorite movies, Jean Vigo’s 1933 film Zero for Conduct, which is about children in revolt at a French boarding school. Education makes me wonder if he’ll take the kid’s-eye-view again in the future.
Sandy’s painfully sympathetic performance highlights Kingsley’s likable awkwardness. He’s bright but has never had his potential recognized by teachers or peers. A white classmate who’s ostensibly his friend treats him like a fool. His teachers who are supposed to be there to help seem unwilling or unable. Standardized tests are supposed to support the meritocracy, but they’re inherently biased along racial and class lines. It turns out many other African-Caribbean children have been sent to special schools. They’re labeled as “sub-normal” and consigned to a life of menial labor and dashed dreams, passing on lowered expectations to their own children. The system, as Shaun Parkes screamed back in Mangrove, is rigged.
Even well-intentioned attempts at education can be detrimental. For instance, how can kids in the UK in the 1980s possibly relate to a 1930s novel by John Steinbeck about American migrant workers? This is a facet of the decades-long debate about expanding the literary canon to include more voices of color and women. Teens and pre-teens struggle to engage with many older books because they can’t see themselves or their lives in the texts, which can put them off the pleasures of books for a long time. So many books taught in schools require an adult’s taste and knowledge of the world. They also require an adult’s pleasure for reading, and they sadly don’t teach the pleasure of reading in schools. Pleasure can’t be measured or cultivated through standardized tests.
I’m reminded of a scene in Alex Wheatle in which the title character is given a sense of purpose through a book by C.L.R. James. He’s also given a sense of expression through music and becoming a reggae MC. These are different kinds of formative texts in Small Axe, and with each text, a character can see themselves in that text--as the protagonist, or as its author. Where in the school’s curriculum does Kingsley see himself when everything about the education system casts him as an other or an outsider?
When we leave the child’s-eye-view of Kingsley’s story, we get an equally sympathetic and well-observed look at his mother, Agnes (Sharlene Whyte). Her story is familiar to anyone with working immigrant parents: she works all day, then she comes home for the second shift of housework. She loves her children, but she’s overwhelmed with the frustrations of the working day to have to deal with another problem. There’s the assumption that the system is working for her child, but notice her change when activists open her eyes to what’s really happening, both at the special school and in public school.
Both Agnes and Kingsley’s stories involve the importance of texts. There’s activist literature and literature that isn’t part of the public school’s reading list. These texts have the power to inform and inspire, and they speak directly to the black experience. So much of Education works as a restatement of Small Axe‘s thesis of black solidarity and ingenuity. I think it’s best encapsulated by a moment involving Hazel (Naomi Ackie), a Guyanese psychologist who stops by the special school. A student questions Hazel’s blackness, a moment so loaded with pain and an unspoken history of black lives being devalued and delegitimized. What Hazel says is simple, but it feels like the first time these students have heard anyone say what she does in person and mean it.
I want so much to talk about the ending of Education, and the many essential texts in Small Axe, and how this closing note works in concert with Red, White, and Blue. But I don’t want to spoil all of the joys and sorrows of this final episode of an excellent series. There’s some debate on if Small Axe should be considered a TV series or an anthology of five thematically connected feature films. I feel it’s the latter, but that’s besides the point. (Maybe, since there are so many texts in Small Axe, we can just complicate matters and consider it a novel or short story cycle.) Small Axe, regardless of medium, is some of the best work of Steve McQueen’s career and deserves as many eyes as possible.