Matt Taylor reviews Education, the final film in Steve McQueen’s s anthology Small Axe which shines a spotlight on Black British history.
It’s a shame to see Small Axe come to an end. With Education, Steve McQueen brings his game-changing series to a spectacular close with an emotional, fiery, and ultimately hopeful film that’s a fantastic endpoint for the series. Taking aim this week at the inequalities inherent in the British school system, Education shows a more tender side to Small Axe that’s a welcome addition and still manages to be a damning indictment of our education system.
We follow young Kingsley Smith (excellent newcomer Kenyah Sandy) through his tumultuous high school education. It’s clear from the outset, thanks to a stellar combination of Sandy’s wondrous performance and McQueen & Alastair Siddons’ fantastic script, that Kingsley is a bright kid. He’s smart, curious, and eloquent – so when his mother is called into his school to be told that he failed an IQ test, we know immediately something is wrong.
As it turns out, what is wrong is that education has failed Kingsley entirely. He’s reached high school and is unable to read, and the “special” school that he’s sent to is little more than a place to keep all the kids deemed “educationally subnormal.” Naturally, he hates it there because he wants and deserves better, but finding what “better” means is a struggle when we realise that the entire system of education is made to punish Black children.
All of this would be hard to digest were it not for the texture of McQueen’s film. As already stated, his script is fantastic, and his cast uses it to their full advantage. Kenyah Sandy (who also stars in Netflix’s Jingle Jangle) certainly has a promising career ahead of him; the 12-year-old imbues Kingsley with a very real and tangible yearning for knowledge, and it’s heartbreaking to see him denied those opportunities for so long. What really makes Education work so well is Kingsley’s relationship with his family, though: their scenes together are wonderful, and the group’s chemistry is a joy to behold.
Tamara Lawrance deserves particular praise as Kingsley’s sister Stephanie, who’s the first to actually believe Kingsley when he says there’s a problem with his new school. Their mother (a stellar Sharlene Whyte) takes a little more convincing, resulting in a heartbreaking scene when she realises just how badly Kingsley has been failed by the system. The three are left to do little more than weep in despair at this moment, and it’s here that we realise just how badly the system affects those it fails to protect.
It’s not all sad times, thankfully; once she realises the obstacles Kingsley faces, Agnes is blazingly proactive, leading to a rather hopeful third act of the film. She meets educators Lydia (Josette Simon) and Hazel (Naomi Ackie), and it’s here that we see the problems of the system truly laid out. It’s made clear to us that the system isn’t failing at all – it’s working exactly as it was designed to. But it was designed to fail Black children and leave them with no career prospects, with many unable to read and write by their teenage years. It’s a harrowing realisation for both Agnes and the audience and carries extra weight when remembering that Education is based partly on McQueen’s own experiences as a child.
Textually, there’s a lot to enjoy about Education, too. Its script is balanced and delicate, as McQueen and Siddons give life to characters we only see for a single scene (such as Jo Martin’s Tabitha Bartholomew, who opens Kingsley’s eyes to the possibilities of education), and about as good as we’ve come to expect from Small Axe; its camerawork is extraordinary; McQueen shoots on film and lends Education a sort of “home movie” aesthetic, which only serves to engage us with the Smiths even more; and Sinead Kidao’s costumes are beautiful, and bind the film together wonderfully.
It is a shame to see Small Axe come to an end – but we must not forget what it has taught us. In just five weeks, Steve McQueen has shown the UK more about Black British history than anything any of us were ever taught in schools, and we are certainly all the better for it. With Education, the series ends on a hopeful note: a reminder that change can come if only we can band together and do something to make it happen.
“If you are the big tree, we are the small axe – sharpened to cut you down, ready to cut you down.”
Education is available to stream now on BBC iPlayer.
Matt Taylor is an avid contributor to Wales Arts Review.