The last entry in the anthology "Kleine Axt" tells of a historical struggle against segregation.
In several sections of Steve McQueen's "Small Ax" anthology, racism against the West Indian people of London is an obvious threat. In "Education" it simmers in the shadows until someone dares to call it out. McQueen's insightful look at a secret segregation policy in the London school district of the early 1970s is an inspirational piece of drama about kitchen sinks and takes an innocent child's perspective and wouldn't look out of place with the kind of socially realistic exposé Ken Loach has been doing for over 50 years. In this case, this tiny but hour-long story is an extension of the Little Ax mission to fill a historical void that deserves further scrutiny, and accomplishes that end by serving as an education in itself.
When we meet 12-year-old Kingsley (promising newcomer Kenyah Sandy) for the first time, he is fascinated by a planetarium full of stars, whose eyes are consumed by the possibilities of an unknown world. But in the context of his mostly white school, he's treated as a nuisance not worthy of the curriculum: the kid with glasses was ostracized for reading slowly during English class and kicking them out of a music session for an overly stark touch with their classmates get through the system before it throws him out.
Kingsley's overworked mother, Agnes (Sharlene Whyte) barely has time for her son's struggles until she is called into the headmaster's office and tells that Kingsley's poor performance on a culturally biased IQ test means he's been sent to a "special" school for slow learners. Meanwhile, the steady accumulation of snapshots of Kingsley's classroom experience makes bullshit a day, and the fearful child knows it. However, his mother seems less interested in understanding the situation than in letting it go. Kingsley may be "maybe a little lively," she admits, but believes he's "nothing but a bunch of trouble" that deserves whatever the pros think is worth his time.
This assumption develops over the course of "Education" as McQueen and co-author Alastair Siddons gradually expand their scope. Kingsley is pushed into a school where teachers are barely paying attention. He is on the verge of an aimless future if activists step in and the context of his problems opens. While Kingsley's plight is fictional, his riddle draws on events that came to light in 1971 when the London Education Authority used IQ tests to throw West Indian children into so-called "pedagogically below average schools," leaving them unqualified for higher education across the board . The Doulton Report, which expressed a desire to exclude West Indian children from a quality school, generated enough outrage to fuel the black education movement. "Education" captures his early movements from the inside out.
Kingsley's story begins to open up when he meets Hazel (Naomi Ackie), who identifies herself as a Guyanese psychologist, in the middle of an abandoned classroom. In truth, she's an undercover activist exploring the system. Their research leads to their colleague Mrs. Morrison (Jade Anouka) showing up at Kingsley's house and confronting his mother about the corruption. "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 and his mother's gradual awakening to the challenge ahead when she realizes that if the educational machinery finds its way, his entire life could be ruined. As mother and son, Whyte and Sandy do remarkable feats, characterized by double struggles to understand a process that is supposed to keep them in the dark. Only when she learns that the system contradicts the needs of her child and then participates in a group meeting of other black parents in similar situations does she finally see the big picture: Kingsley needs help.
"Education" is based on the arrival of this realization and the resulting solution, and despite some heated discussions about the upcoming missions, it is stirred up with an evolving sense of purpose. Overall, the conciseness appears modest compared to the broader systematic indictments in Small Ax, but remains a dedicated form of cultural advocacy that enlarges an underserved chapter of British history by rooting it in a touching personal story.
McQueen and cinematographer Shabier Kirschner mostly act it out directly, with the same robust details from the period found in other episodes. Overall, "Education" is McQueen at his best. He sneaks into one of the more ambitious sequences in the entire anthology, however, after the dance “Silly Games” from “Lovers Rock,” and again uses music to deliver a point. While the a cappella of "Lovers Rock" embodied the joy of blacks by rooting the audience in the power of the moment, here we are forced to sit with bored students as their teacher wastes class time by producing a terrible rendition of "House of the Rising" plays sun. "It's funny, tragic, annoying and ultimately annoying – just like it should be to convey the unique challenges. On the other side of this gruesome performance, the audience shows up with someone can do something about it and create catharsis when someone finally does it.
Just as McQueen's earlier "Small Ax" entry "Alex Wheatle" sets the stage for his title character's career, "Education" acts as a kind of prologue: It builds on Agnes' decision to become a new Secretary of State for Education and Science To write Margaret Thatcher, you sowed the seeds of the Education Reform Act and would sign the bill as Prime Minister some 15 years later, but does not travel that far. Instead, the story gives a glimpse into a boy full of potential, if only society gave him the chance to fulfill it. The drama is accompanied by the image of Kingsley staring at the cosmos, lost in the moment and dreaming of a world that lingers beyond the frame. This encompasses the mission of "Small Ax" as a whole, which celebrates the ambition to look no matter the cost.
Grade: B +
"Education" will be broadcast on December 13, 2020 on the BBC and streamed on Amazon Prime Video from December 18, 2020.