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“Education” caps off “Small Axe” with a quiet, powerful call to action

Small Axe: Education

Steve McQueen’s incredible anthology closes with a deeply sympathetic probe of the racial deficits of the British school system.

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The stakes of Education, the fifth and final installment of Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology, are both relatively straightforward and astronomically high. At age 12, Kingsley (Kenyah Sandy) is a bright kid. He dreams of growing up and becoming an astronaut. Unfortunately, he hasn’t yet learned to read. 

The system is all too ready to give up on Kingsley. When his mother is called into a meeting with his principal, the administrator informs her that Kingsley has failed an IQ test, and therefore will be transferred to a “special school.” On his first day, he’s greeted by a girl who makes animal noises and “teachers” who treat him with disgust. Where will Kingsley go from here? A little later, we learn kids who graduate these glorified day-cares rarely join the workforce as anything more than menial labor. 

Kingsley also has a tough time communicating with the people closest to him. It’s nobody’s fault; he talks most with older sister, a high schooler who dreams of becoming a fashion designer. Their hard-working parents seem perpetually out of reach, too exhausted from their endless work shifts to deal with the cause of Kingsley’s problems. What are they supposed to do? 

Small Axe: Education
Small Axe: Education (Amazon Prime Video)

For Kingsley to thrive, he and his family must find or construct an alternate means to his education. At the very least, they’ll need to actually talk to each other. But even as they clash, McQueen and regular co-writer Alastair Siddons treat these characters with a sympathetic hand. Like last week’s Alex Wheatle, at only an hour the condensed nature of Education means this Small Axe can’t strike as deep as it could. Simultaneously, the film does an impressive job of sketching the systemic racism of London’s school system in the seventies, without losing sight of Kingsley and his family. 

Both Wheatle and Education stress the necessity of literacy – though the latter does a far better job illustrating what that process actually looks like. Luckily for Kingsley, he (literally) runs into an activist (Naomi Ackie), who offers to bring him to an informal, Saturday morning program where he can learn what public school refuses to teach him. It’s genuinely touching to see Kingsley truly thriving by the time the credits roll, in large part thanks to Sandy’s performance. He’s able to quietly convey the pain of neglect without turning the character into a victimized caricature. You get the sense Kingsley’s smart enough to cover for his blind spots, a fine needle for any actor to thread. 

Education hasn’t just been a key theme of the last two Small Axes: so much of Red, White, Blue too was spent on Logan Leroy’s police training, watching the academy mold the recruit into a tool of the state. Speaking of Red, White, Blue, that film was originally meant to be released last, until McQueen reshuffled his deck in the eleventh hour. Now the finale, Education resolves the anthology with an affirmation of alternative systems, a much more optimistic note than the last scene of RWB, a bleak call to action. While I prefer the original conclusion, maybe McQueen doesn’t want to depress his audience right now. Regardless, Small Axe closes on a strong note – Education ends some of the best cinema of 2020.

Education takes us to school, along with the rest of the Small Axe anthology, on Amazon Prime Video.

Small Axe: Education Trailer:

CategoriesMovies
Jonah Koslofsky

Jonah Koslofsky is a critic and filmmaker living in Chicago. He regularly writes about film, television, and pop culture, with a special interest in David Lynch, the Marvel movies, and using too many em-dashes. On an average day, you might find him in a coffee shop or a comic book store. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook – he's just happy to be here!