Education is the final installment in Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology—which collectively won Best Picture from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association—and like Lovers Rock, it is not based on a specific person, but on a specific event that occurred in the Afro-Caribbean community in London in the 1970s. This time, McQueen turns to the education scandal that erupted when systemic biases against Black children, particularly the children of Caribbean immigrants, in the London school system were exposed. Using a system of bunkum IQ tests, London schools would regularly offload Black children to “special” schools for the “educationally sub-normal”. Dubbed “ESN”, once thrust into this system it was virtually impossible to escape, dooming children to a lifetime of low-wage work and a total lack of social advancement.
Kingsley (Kenyah Sandy) is twelve and he loves space, he wants to be an astronaut AND to play for Tottenham Hotspur F.C. Like all twelve-year-olds, Kingsley can be a little rambunctious, but unlike his classmates, who get a tap on the shoulder when they act up, Kingsley is ejected from class. His mates can see something is wrong, that Kingsley is being singled out and punished in ways they are not for the same behavior. Kingsley is obviously a bright kid, building model lunar rovers and rockets on the kitchen table, but he struggles to read. Whether Kingsley has an undiagnosed learning disability or has simply been overlooked to the extent that he never actually learned, the end result is the same—he can’t read at twelve, which gives his school a reason to evict him to an ESN school. (A later scene heavily implies the English school system is actively overlooking Black children and not teaching literacy.)
The ESN school is a joke, with teachers who abandon their classes or, in one surreally hilarious scene, spend the class singing “The House of the Rising Sun” to their students like That Guy With A Guitar at a college party. Kingsley is frustrated and angry, but his mother won’t hear of complaints about his new school. His mother, Agnes (Sharlene Whyte), works two jobs and is constantly exhausted, and Kingsley just seems like a whiny kid, but Agnes has not yet realized the extent to which Kingsley is being targeted and deliberately failed by the system. You think Education is going to be Kingsley’s story, but it is really a two-hander between Kingsley and Agnes. Yes, it is about the actual education system disenfranchising Black students, but it is also about the education Agnes receives in the ways she can fight back against that disenfranchisement. A community meeting reveals to her that she is not the only one struggling with the promise of an immigrant’s better life, and she begins to see the mechanisms turning against her son.
One of the consistent themes of Small Axe is community and the women who shaped and supported the Caribbean diaspora in London in the 1970s and 1980s. Education is a love letter to those women, who fought to improve the lives of their children and communities through organized action, such as the Saturday schools that offer additional support to students like Kingsley, with the aim of getting him back into a regular school. It will be difficult; Agnes has to apply to Margaret Thatcher for an appeal, so…good luck. But though Education makes no promises and offers no neat ending, it does end on an uplifting note, that through community support, improvement is possible, even if the systemic changes will take much, much longer to achieve.
Bob Marley sang, “If you are the big tree, we are the small axe,” and that is the final theme Education underlines. The big tree will not be cut down in one fell swoop, but it will fall after a thousand small cuts from a thousand small axes, like those wielded by the activists of Mangrove, the reformers of Red, White and Blue, the storytellers like Alex Wheatle, and the thousands of unknown everyday fighters like those in Lovers Rock and Education, whose incremental strikes weaken the trunk of the tree.
Small Axe: Education is now streaming on Amazon Prime.