Education is a Fitting Cap to Small Axe
It’s only fitting that the fifth entry in Steve McQueen’s Small Axe quintet of films should be titled Education. The series thus far has bobbed and weaved, ducked and dived around the importance of education - or the lack of a good one - for Black immigrants in London over a three-decade period. In particular, McQueen has focused on the superciliousness that an education grants: its presence is a ticket to arrogance; its absence a chink in the armor of self-assurance. After four movies of dancing around the concept, McQueen turns the spotlight on it. In Education, education is everything.
Education is only the second Small Axe film to follow fictional characters, though it is based on the real-life events of 1970s London, when Black schoolchildren were often transferred to schools for the “educationally subnormal.” McQueen’s take on the subject stars Kenyah Sandy as Kingsley, a primary school boy who struggles to read aloud and who is targeted by teachers and administrators for being “disruptive” and having a low IQ - both concepts that the film initially presents as being objective, only to undermine later, playing the audience’s biases against us. Kingsley is sent to one of these “ESN” schools.
Education is bookended by shots of the cosmos, wrapping the earthbound story in an ethereal ribbon. Kingsley brings up the concept of infinity during a childish argument over multiplication tables, and it’s in this concept that we discover McQueen’s intention. Education can be freeing or it can shackle; for Black children in London (and around the Western world), it has most often been the latter. When Kingsley finds his way to a teacher that both looks like him and invests in him, his potential becomes limitless. His possibilities are infinite. The stars are his limit.
Sharlene Whyte brings a focused intensity as Kingsley’s mother, Agnes, and the movie splits its time between mother and son. It ends up a bit too much to take on for a film that runs just over an hour (less with credits), and several strands of story taper off, like a comet that dwindles to a wisp of light halfway across the sky. McQueen opted to create a broader world that never fully comes into focus; this in complete opposition to something like Lovers Rock, his second installment that trains its lens on a single house party over the course of one night. The latter tends to stick with you for longer.
Education is nonetheless a worthy finale to a singular film experience. Its two moments of stillness - one at the beginning, the other near the end - will fester in my gut and linger in my memory. As a whole, Small Axe creates a world across time, fills it with texture and sound and humanity, and offers both hope and cynicism. But more than anything, it offers love.