“Education.” That’s as good a title as any for the final episode of Steve McQueen’s “Small Axe” project — a series of five features, some little more than an hour, designed to educate and inform audiences about the experience of London’s West Indian immigrant population, about the expectations of assimilation raised by a white-majority country and the obstacles such a society puts in the way of that goal.
To get the picture, audiences needn’t see every entry of this prismatic project, which views the community from different angles at different times over several decades, and this may well prove to be the least watched of the lot, being the last and least starry of them. But do yourself a favor: Don’t miss “Education.” Watch it with your kids — it’s the most accessible to young audiences — and share it with others.
Set in the 1970s, this 63-minute film focuses on a 12-year-old, Kingsley (Kenyah Sandy), who appears “normal” enough to our eyes, but is singled out by the administration as inferior to his classmates. When Kingsley acts up, the teacher sends him to the headmaster, who recommends to Kingsley’s parents that they send him to a “special” school, one better equipped to deal with his unique needs.
McQueen and co-writer Alastair Siddons are clever in their approach. They anticipate that some viewers will instinctively try to erase the racism of the situation, presenting Kingsley as a slightly disruptive kid with a serious problem: He can’t read. Kingsley would benefit from one-on-one instruction, and his mother, Agnes (Sharlene Whyte), thinks it’s a good idea. She has trouble dealing with her son as well. But as the film unfolds, we realize that “special” in this case is a code word for segregation: At the time in London’s Haringey borough, the council used data from childhood IQ tests to conclude that West Indian kids were “educationally sub-normal” vis-à-vis their white classmates and set up special schools to accommodate them — a systemic mechanism to filter these immigrants out of the general population and forget about them.
Under the new arrangement, Kingsley goes to his usual school, where he is loaded onto a bus and transported to another for those with learning disabilities. During the intake interview, he sits beside a white girl who makes barking noises. And “class,” such as it is, amounts to a kind of day care, as the teacher pulls out his guitar and plays folk songs — if he bothers to show up at all.
This image of public education is alarming, to say the least, but McQueen has established his credibility by not being reductive about the institution or its employees in the run-up to this shock. For the filmmaker, this appears to be the most personal of the five entries, presenting a working-class family not unlike his own (Dad is present but unavailable; Mom works two jobs) and details from his public school experience a decade later.
In some cases, the signs of racism are overt. At recess, Kingsley asks the white lady with the whistle, “What are we supposed to do?” and she shrugs, “Swing from the trees like you’re back home in the jungle for all I care.” But more pernicious still are the assumptions never articulated outright but built into a system that sees Black children as “sub-normal.” There’s little in the way of instruction happening at Kingsley’s new school, beyond imprinting on them the idea that their lives don’t matter. They’re not only being taught to fail but also taken out of the pipeline that might offer them some chance of advancement.
The film’s title takes on a second meaning about midway through when a Black activist approaches Kingsley’s mother with a pamphlet and a pitch: “How the West Indian Child is made Educationally Sub-normal in the British School System.” Agnes is incredulous at first. She can’t believe the public schools would abandon her child. Tougher still, she doesn’t want to think that she played some part in setting her son back. But Agnes listens all the same, attending group meetings where fellow parents share their stories. It is here that her education begins, opening Agnes’ eyes to the inequity British educational institutions show West Indian children — and sparking an intervention that seeks to correct the problem.
Of the five “Small Axe” films, this one is the least concerned with style. It’s there, but works in service of a compelling human-interest story. Where “Lovers Rock” felt free-form and artful (to a fault, perhaps) and the others framed real-life incidents as empowering civil rights triumphs, this semi-fictionalized episode strips things down to the grainy, naturalistic feel of directors like Alan Clarke and the “Play for Today” series (an obvious inspiration for the entire anthology). McQueen and DP Shabier Kirchner (“Bull”) shot on 16mm in the same Kodak color scheme calibrated to flatter white skin in film and TV of the time, rigorously re-creating the costumes and interiors of the period (wigs and stick-on mustaches are less convincing, though the budgets were modest).
“Education” hits audiences in a different way from the other installments because it concerns children, though McQueen never manipulates that fact for cheap sentiment. Racism is bad enough when it affects adults, but there’s something especially insidious when it is institutionalized in such a way as to perpetuate across generations, limiting people’s chances from the start. The brilliance of this particular episode is how it allows us to see ourselves in Kingsley and to consider the many unseen forces at play in our own socialization. For Black audiences, it confirms many of those invisible barriers. For white ones, it may lead them to question whether the myth of their “success” owes in part to keeping others back.