'Education': Film Review

Will Robson- Scott / Amazon Prime Video

Kenyah Sandy in 'Education'

The three 'R's: Reading, racism, rights.

Steve McQueen concludes his 'Small Axe' anthology on West Indian experience in London with a domestic drama about a 12-year-old boy stigmatized by the school authority's stealth segregation policy.

Your heart sinks toward the end of Education when you learn that a weary West Indian mother's appeal for a fair deal for her son must go through the recently appointed Secretary of State for Education and Science, Margaret Thatcher. Though that was the early 1970s, before the Iron Lady rose to power as U.K. prime minister, our knowledge of that zealous xenophobe hammers home the wall of prejudice facing countless immigrant families. Alongside the blight of racial injustice, one of the underlying themes of Steve McQueen's Small Axe is the inextinguishable spirit of a community. So it's both heartwarming and appropriate that the anthology concludes with women taking matters into their own capable hands.

Of the five films in the remarkable series airing on Amazon in the U.S. and BBC One in Britain, Education is the simplest. It's a straightforward hour-long drama centered on 12-year-old Kingsley Smith, played by Kenyah Sandy with a bright-eyed enthusiasm dulled by soul-crushing experience before gradually re-emerging once he finds a supportive environment.

With its crisp narrative economy, tender emotional insight and gentle depiction of the sturdy bonds of a struggling working class family, the original script by McQueen and Alastair Siddons plays almost like a YA adaptation, in the best possible way. Shot on period-evocative 16mm by versatile DP Shabier Kirchner, for whom this series will provide an impressive calling card, it's short, sweet and effective, tying together the divergent threads of the decades-spanning Small Axe project on a note both poignant and personal.

Kingsley is introduced staring up in wonder at the Andromeda Galaxy during a school science museum excursion as an American narrator drones on about the universe. An abrupt cut from that glittery firmament to his home life reveals a far more constricted world.

His mother Agnes (Sharlene Whyte) returns from her night shift as a nurse with barely enough time to fix the family breakfast before setting out on her day job as a cleaner. The hours of his taciturn father Esmond (Daniel Francis), a laborer on the London Underground, make him a fleeting presence in the home. Kingsley has a scrappy but loving relationship with his older sister Stephanie (Tamara Lawrance, terrific this year in Kindred), a smart teenager focused on getting into a design college and building a career in fashion. Her skirt lengths are an issue with her strict religious mother. Kingsley wants to be an astronaut, but also to play soccer for Tottenham.

Kingsley's best friends at school are respectively white and South Asian, suggesting that the multicultural mix is smoother in that age group than in broader London society. But his teachers show no patience with his evident dyslexia. When he's slow to respond after being called on in class during a reading lesson, a teacher calls him a "blockhead." A minor disruption during band practice gets him ejected from class and soon Mrs. Smith is being summoned to the office of the headmaster (Adrian Rawlins) to discuss Kingsley's problems.

The results of an independently monitored IQ test apparently have shown that Kingsley scored well below average and the headmaster spins his compulsory transfer to a "special school" as a unique opportunity. Agnes is too preoccupied by work and angered by her son's disciplinary issues to object, so Kingsley is summarily separated from his friends and bussed off to an institution tucked away in the outer suburbs, where learning is not a priority. When he asks a sour-faced teacher chewing on a cigarette what he's supposed to do during a break, she snaps, "Swing from the trees like you're back home in the jungle for all I care."

McQueen doesn't hold back on the jarring experience for Kingsley of being thrust into a coldly uncaring institution, where the faculty seem both unskilled and uninterested while the kids range across a wide spectrum of learning disabilities. One girl communicates exclusively with animal noises. Others show no lack of intelligence, like Kingsley, aside from his poor reading skills.

The closest thing to a lesson is a grimly funny scene in which a teacher plods through the entirety of "House of the Rising Sun," accompanying his flat vocals on acoustic guitar as the students either stare bewildered, sleep or engage in their own distracted pursuits. Kingsley's reaction is basically to shut down, becoming uncommunicative and busying himself with his obsessive drawings of rockets.

The key point of McQueen's film is the shocking revelation, no doubt not widely known outside Britain, that the Inner London Education Authority had a policy of targeting West Indian children through a cultural bias in IQ tests. Essentially, the kids were being written off without a chance in life virtually before they had even gotten started.

Those factors emerge organically in the drama, at first when Kingsley hears other boys talking about the stigmatization of a school whose students are branded for life as "thick," giving them limited employment avenues. A psychologist posing as a journalist (Naomi Ackie) enters the school and gathers names from the students, which is how concerned education advocate Lydia Thomas (Josette Simon) comes knocking on the Smiths' door. She gives the initially skeptical Agnes a dose of cold hard facts and a fistful of pamphlets about the discrimination implicit in the placement of Black children in "educationally subnormal schools."

As in all of the Small Axe films (click here for reviews of the others: Lovers Rock; Mangrove; Red, White and Blue; and Alex Wheatle), McQueen's emotional investment in this story is evident at every turn, even if he went through the London school system a decade later. His actors, too, bring integrity and powerful connections to their characters; the family dynamic is especially well drawn, with the unfussy naturalism of the best British kitchen-sink tradition. Even Esmond, whose old-fashioned solution to Kingsley's problems is to try to steer him out of school and into a carpentry apprenticeship ("That boy needs to learn a trade"), is gruff but not too unsympathetic to listen to his wife about the far-reaching damage being done to their son.

There's extraordinary warmth in the storytelling as Agnes and Stephanie become involved with the network of West Indian women motivating parents to join their anti-discrimination campaign and bring their kids along to Black Saturday Schools. One of these supplementary learning environments, set up in the homes of Caribbean immigrants, is depicted in a delightful scene here almost as an extended family gathering, with an emphasis on instilling pride through knowledge of African heritage.

That in itself is an integral part of what the entire Small Axe anthology is about — marginalized people reaffirming their cultural identity. The five films all deal with the self-determination of both individuals and community in the face of institutionalized racism, and Education fits that frame with its stirring story of grass-roots activism that gets results. When Kingsley responds to the encouragement and the participatory spirit of his extracurricular schooling, the joy that spreads across his face as he gazes at a universe once again opening up for him brings a feeling of elated liberation. 

Production companies: BBC Film, Turbine Studios, Lammas Park, in association with Amazon Studios, Emu Films
Distributor: Amazon, BBC Studios
Cast: Kenyah Sandy, Sharlene Whyte, Tamara Lawrance, Daniel Francis, Josette Simon, Ryan Masher, Naomi Ackie, Jo Martin, Adrian Rawlins
Director: Steve McQueen
Screenwriters: Alastair Siddons, Steve McQueen
Producers: Michael Elliott, Anita Overland
Executive producers: Tracey Scoffield, David Tanner, Steve McQueen, Lucy Richer, Rose Garnett
Director of photography: Shabier Kirchner
Production designer: Helen Scott
Costume designer:
Sinead Kidao
Editors: Chris Dickens, Steve McQueen
Casting: Gary Davy
63 minutes