As your average constant movie reviewer, I was certainly quite interested in watching Steve McQueen’s exceptional movie anthology series “Small Axe”, which happened to be selected as one of the best works of 2020 among many film critics groups in last year. Although it can be regarded as a TV miniseries and I will not be surprised if it receives several Emmy nominations later, “Small Axe” is inarguably another superlative cinematic achievement from McQueen, and I come to admire it more as appreciating its whole big picture consisting of five different dramas with each own distinctive quality.
All of these five movies are mainly about Black British People (of West Indian heritage, to be precise) and their life and culture during the late 20th century, and each of them provides each own perspective to be appreciated. While “Mangrove”, the first film which is also the best of the bunch, presents a vivid and intense race drama involved with one curry restaurant in Notting Hill of London, “Lovers Rock” provides some warmth and comfort via its little but sensitive romance drama, and “Red, White and Blue” and “Alex Wheatle” illuminate the systemic racism and injustice via their contrasting viewpoints.
In case of “Education”, the fifth film which is incidentally the shortest one in the bunch (Its running time is only 63 minutes, by the way), it looks at another case of systemic injustice through the viewpoint of one little black kid and his family. While it is often heartbreaking to see how this kid gets deprived of the opportunity for better education and life just like many other young black students during that time, we are also touched by the communal efforts for saving these unfortunate kids, and the overall result is the satisfying last chapter to follow its four predecessors.
After the opening scene which will probably take you back to your childhood memories of planetarium, the movie observes the daily life of a young black kid named Kingsley Smith (Kenyah Sandy). While it is apparent to us that he is a smart and sensitive kid who wants to be an astronaut someday, he has not been doing that well at his elementary school, and, though it looks like he really needs some extra help for learning how to read, his teachers do not help much while casually labeling him as a trouble to be discarded sooner or later.
In the end, Kingsley’s mother Agnes (Sharlene Whyte) is brought to the school principal’s office for some important discussion. Because Kingsley’s recent IQ test result turned out to be below average, the principal decided to have Kingsley transferred to a certain “special” school, and Agnes does not mind this at all mainly because she has been constantly busy with her menial job just like her husband.
When she reads a pamphlet from that special school, Kingsley’s older sister does not feel that right about it, and Kingsley soon comes to learn how horrible it is in many ways. The teachers at that special school often neglect their duties without showing much care and attention to Kingsley and many other ‘special’ kids, and Kingsley and other students simply spend time without learning or doing anything at all. Agnes is initially relieved as her son does not cause any more trouble at all, but Kingsley becomes more frustrated and despaired, and there is no one to whom he can talk about that.
Fortunately, Kingsley happens to meet someone helpful at the right time when he is aimlessly going through another frustrating school day as usual. She is a young black psychiatrist/activist who has had a keen interest on the systemic mistreatment inflicted on young black kids like Kingsley, and it does not take much time for Agnes to realize what is really happening to her son. She initially dismisses that at first, but, as a caring mother, she gradually comes to sense that she made a big mistake, and then she becomes much more active for protecting her son’s interests as much as possible.
As shifting its focus a bit toward Agnes’ viewpoint, the screenplay by McQueen and his co-writer Alastair Siddons directly tells us about how the British public education system had deliberately discriminated many black students out there for many years. As exposed by educationalist Bernard Coard’s 1971 pamphlet “How the West Indian Child is Made Educationally Sub-normal in the British School System”, there was an unofficial policy of transferring disproportionate numbers of black students from mainstream education to schools for the so-called “educationally subnormal”, and this disgraceful policy consequently contributed to a vicious cycle of poverty and the lack of education among Black British folks. The less they learned, the more likely they were bound to cheap menial jobs while not being capable of giving opportunities of better life and education to their children, and that went on and on for decades.
After directly pointing out its main issues to us, the movie resolves its character conflict a little too easily, but it still engages us thanks to the good performances from two main performers at the center of the story. While young performer Kenyah Sandy instantly earns our sympathy and empathy right from the very beginning, Sharlene Whyte is equally fine as a mother with some human flaws, and she and Sandy are particularly touching when their characters come to have an emotional breakthrough between them around the end of the film.
On the whole, “Education” may feel less special compared to the first three films of “Small Axe”, but, like “Alex Wheatle”, it works as another crucial part of the series nonetheless, and its tentatively hopeful finale lingers on you for a while as making you reflect more on the social issues presented by it and the other four films of the series. Yes, these social issues surely feel like big intractable trees, but, as suggested by the lyric of Bob Marley’s song “Small Axe”, they may fall down someday via small but persistent communal efforts functioning like small axes against them, and we see a glimpse of hope and future at the end of this very special series. After all, things do change, don’t they?