Time Out says
A story of failing systems, Steve McQueen’s fifth Small Axe drama is the most emotionally raw and personal yet
There’s been nothing in recent memory quite like Small Axe, an ambitious, deeply empathetic series of films by Steve McQueen. Each of its five dramas about London’s West Indian communities across the decades has returned to interconnected themes of collective resistance, changing familial ties and the hope of making your mark on the world. These familiar, personal issues may as well be the entire universe as far as McQueen is concerned, and Education, the final film in the series and its most personal tale yet, illustrates as much in its first shot: the stars themselves mapped on the face of Kingsley (Kenyah Sandy), a young boy gazing awestruck up at the planetarium presentation, dreaming of being an astronaut.
Of course, the rigid and anti-Black structure of British systems belittle such aspirations, and do everything in their power to phase Kingsley out. He’s picked on in class by his own teachers, all unaware or wilfully ignorant of his dyslexia; McQueen and co-writer Alastair Siddons’ script homes in on his struggle with being moved out of sight to a ‘special’ school.
In this context, the move is simply a pretence for racial segregation within the British school system. Kingsley is compartmentalised for the school’s sake; left to his own devices the moment he arrives. He isn’t disruptive because of a lack of interest in learning. In fact, he desperately wants to learn. Instead, it’s the lack of accommodation and outright hostility from his teachers that turns him against them. The emphasis on his isolation is heartbreaking, his loneliness made clearer with each casually racist jab from teachers and students alike.
As well as this new perspective on social isolation, the fuzzy, period-appropriate 16mm camerawork (handled evocatively by cinematographer Shabier Kirchner) and atmosphere of Education feels completely distinct from the rest of Small Axe. Even the soundtrack – a major part of this anthology – has melted away, with few needle drops beyond a headteacher subjecting his miserable students to a seemingly neverending cover of House of the Rising Sun.
McQueen takes care to show that Kingsley’s seemingly unavailable parents are not intentionally ignorant of what’s happening to Kingsley; they simply have a learned faith in the system within which they find themselves. Seeing parental love override that, especially from Kingsley’s mother Agnes (whose initial sternness is delicately played by Sharlene Whyte) is supremely affecting.
Through these shifting relationships, Education becomes the most emotionally raw piece of Small Axe. It’s more tender than anything else McQueen has done, most likely because of the filmmaker’s close identification with the subject. He grew up with dyslexia himself, and in interviews he has said that he was made to feel shame for it. When Kingsley abashedly hints that he struggles with the letters and words, it’s because he’s been made to feel that it’s his own fault, rather than something that needs understanding. You can really feel McQueen’s own struggles here: it’s a fittingly intimate and confessional way to end a remarkable series of films.
Airing on BBC One and BBC iPlayer in the UK Dec 13. Streaming in the US via Amazon Prime.
Cast and crew