Director: Steve McQueen
Stars: Kenyah Sandy, Sharlene Whyte, Naomi Ackie
Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series of films comes to a bittersweet close with what appears to be his most personal tale – and possibly the most personally motivated piece of work in his career thus far. Throughout the strand, McQueen has spotlighted institutions that have failed the West Indian community in London, and this final film turns its attention to schools.
12-year-old Kingsley Smith (Kenyah Sandy) attends a typical public secondary school. He is, as many of his classmates would be, filled with wide-eyed dreams for his future. We first meet him on a trip to the planetarium, and later on, speaking to God, he tells of his hopes of becoming an astronaut (or playing for Tottenham). Sandy’s performance lets us know the child has a keen inner life; that he is switched on, smart. But his abilities don’t tell the same story. Through a mixture of neglectful failings, he is substantially behind his classmates. He can’t read properly and, when he scores low on a standardised IQ test, the headmaster takes the opportunity to unload him. Kingsley is sent to a ‘special’ school. The switch is packaged as an opportunity for more focused learning in a smaller environment, but the reality amounts to a sustained detention, with no learning offered and – frequently – no supervision on hand.
Labelled ‘sub-normal’, the children sent to these ‘special’ schools were essentially abandoned; leftovers that the system decided it couldn’t accommodate or even hope to rescue. Kingsley complains at home that his new school is boring, that he isn’t taxed or challenged, but his words are generally ignored. His sister, Stephanie (Tamara Lawrence), hears him, but she’s only a few years older and lacks the gumption or power to bring about change for Kingsley. It isn’t until a grassroots organisation pries into the workings of the school and approaches Kingsley’s mother Agnes (Sharlene Whyte) directly, that the dire situation is addressed within the family home.
Still, we’re not afforded a quick turnaround. Agnes is prideful and she all-but turfs out the well-meaning Lydia (Josette Simon) on their first encounter. But after confronting her son (a heartbreaking scene), she becomes invested in turning the situation around. Her husband Esmond (Daniel Francis) is less supportive, subscribing to an outmoded concept of her role in the household; a patriarchal blindness that feels complimentary to the government’s selective priorities.
Agnes discovers the extent of the problem through this community outreach group; that the education system in London is racist, and that West Indian children are often hampered, just as Kingsley has been. As with Lovers Rock and Alex Wheatle, this is a svelte piece, running to little more than an hour, intended chiefly to highlight an example of institutional failing, rather than carry the weight of telling a broader story of resolution or reform. A knowing reference to then-Secretary of State Margaret Thatcher acknowledges the grim realities of the struggle ahead.
Education is primarily a character piece. And it is here that one senses reflection in McQueen’s eyes. From the chatter of Capital Radio in the family kitchen, to the scrappy conversations with his pals before he’s carted off to ‘special school’, there’s a very specific sense of memory infused into Kingsley. I’m openly presuming of course, but the scene in which he hides on the floor of the ‘special bus’ to avoid engaging with his former friends feels achingly ripped from experience.
The camerawork throughout feels inquisitive and journalistic. Handheld enquiries into the minutiae of Kingsley’s room carry with them a kind of sweet intimacy rarely felt before Small Axe; complimentary – in an innocent kind of way – to the heady gaze of the Lovers Rock blues party scenes. McQueen has stretched himself throughout these films, and its been pleasing to witness. His collaboration with cinematographer Shabier Kirchner has been a constant pleasure.
Education was not intended to be the final installment of Small Axe; the running order was switched around. And though together they form an anthology, the original plan was to end on the sudden full-stop of Red, White and Blue.
While this may have been a rather effective emergency exit for this run of films, suggestive of stories potentially in progress and just a slim portion of the ones worth telling, Education closes out on a galactic note.
We return to the stargazing that opened the piece, as Kingsley’s path reaches a self-determined course correction. Small Axe signs off by taking us into the infinite. In turn, one senses not just the boundless possibilities for this one child, but the same immense potential for the West Indian community of London and the wealth of experience and untold narratives still locked within it. It’s a sign-off that evokes how both the macro and the micro. The specificity of Small Axe, but also its universal connotations. Like Eames’ Powers of Ten educational short, one imagines the stories of London’s West Indian community starting out as screen-filling before incremental zoom-outs place it in context of first a city, then a nation, then the world and so on.
Kingsley Smith is still in there. And Alex Wheatle. And Leroy Logan. And all the others. Their stories as important as any others being told.