‘Small Axe’ is an anthology comprised of five original films directed by Steve McQueen and set from the late 1960s to the mid-1980s, telling personal stories from London’s West Indian community, whose lives have been shaped by their own force of will despite rampant racism and discrimination. This title is derived from the African proverb, “If you are the big tree, we are the small axe,” later popularized by Bob Marley & the Wailers.
Imagine being a child who visits a planetarium and is filled with wonder. You want to grow up and be an astronaut because of how amazing the universe seems – something full of endless possibilities. And now imagine that opportunity is taken away from you because you’ve been deemed “educationally subnormal.” It’s not because you have trouble reading or because you act out in class. No, it’s because you’re a black kid who has been targeted by an unofficial policy to be placed in a separate school for “special” children, which is a disguised way of segregating kids from one another. You couldn’t find a clearer example of how systemic racism begins.
Despite the outrage these real-life practices caused in 1970s London, “Education,” the final film in McQueen’s Small Axe series, is more hopeful than it seems. Likely more personal to McQueen than the others, as the story somewhat reflects his own upbringing, the premise is fairly straightforward. Kinglsey (Kenyah Sandy, a terrific young newcomer) is determined more suited for a “special” school, and his mother, Agnes (Sharlene Whyte), is given enough to be convinced by the reasoning.
Once there, Kingsley is given little to do beyond being barely watched over by the staff, who spends more time picking up the guitar and singing the kids to sleep, as opposed to anything worthwhile. Eventually, a Black activist, Hazel (Naomi Ackie), uses the knowledge she has about these supposed schools to ideally convince Agnes of what’s really going on. Hazel brings a pamphlet, “How the West Indian Child is made Educationally Sub-normal in the British School System,” and yet she is met with denial. How can Agnes admit she played a role in sending her child to a place like this? As we soon learn, Kingsley is not the only one being educated in this story.
“Education” is a fitting conclusion to this terrific series of films thanks to the focus on children. It’s one thing to point out racism and discriminatory practices amongst adults, but the impact becomes even more immediate when focusing on kids being challenged by an institution that should not only be obligated to teach them but a means of inspiration for them.
Being the shortest and most family-friendly entry of this series, there’s little reason for parents not to watch this film with their own children, as a means of understanding the sort of difficulties that have been faced over time. While the arc of Small Axe finds a rather fitting endpoint with this film, it’s not as though one needed to watch each one to keep up with what’s been taking place. The benefit of bringing more in to watch would add to a positive cycle, rather fitting of film that starts things anew with its younger-skewing focus.
By creating this separate story that is not focused on true-to-life individuals, lining “Education” up closer to “Lovers Rock,” as opposed to “Alex Wheatle,” McQueen and co-writer Alastair Siddons do a fine job of playing with expectations. As the shortest film in this series, there’s only so much time to establish who Kingsley is, but the work is done to show he is a child. He acts out and isn’t quite as good at reading as he could be for various reasons (don’t count out the attitudes of the kids around him). Even when at the “special” school, while we can see his complete boredom, as he sits in a class where a little white girl’s only response to any question is to make animal noises, the black girl next to Kingsley is quickly proven to be a strong reader, and much quicker to answer any question.
This approach humanizes the story. We don’t feel sorry for Kingsley simply because he’s a young boy, but because many will see themselves in Kingsley to some degree and feel immensely frustrated by the awful predicament he’s in. McQueen even goes the extra mile of approximating the feel of something more naturalistic. Shot on 16mm, this may be the least showy of the films, though it never denies the feature of its human interests. There are triumphs here, but not as pronounced as “Mangrove.” Instead, the obvious problems are presented matter-of-factly. The dramatic weight is centered around whether or not anyone will listen. Through all of this, the camera is placed exactly where it needs to be.
So why close out Small Axe with this film? The challenges faced by the young are ones they may face their entire lives. Anyone who watched these films straight through recognizes the varying age groups that have been put on display. With “Education,” we are seeing the start of a generation being challenged by a lack of challenge for the sake of keeping immigrants away from the general population.
Following some justice being delivered, and a slice-of-life display of a party, the middle entry of this series, “Red, White and Blue,” made little effort to show the potential of a change in the status quo. “Education” moves to put a focus on the ways people can stand up and take a cause to the highest authority because of believing in what’s right. Yes, problems are still prevalent in one form or another now, but at least people still fight for a little boy or girl to have the opportunity to become an astronaut if they want to, as no child should be told they are subnormal.