As the title of this final instalment of the Small Axe series would imply, Education seems laser-focused on bringing attention to a highly specific issue casting a very long and ominous shadow over Britain’s relationship with what is commonly referred to as systemic racial discrimination. Even though the story Steve McQueen uses as the vehicle for this conversation isn’t directly tied to a historical figure, the problem at hand is real and tactile. Kingsley Smith, the young boy at the epicentre of the narrative, is likely a compound character meant to symbolize the plight of thousands (if not more) of kids from ethnic backgrounds who have been let down by the system and openly disadvantaged by a covertly racist policy of moving children from such backgrounds – who may also be struggling with the curriculum – to special needs schools, thus ruining their chances to have a successful life or a career.
Therefore, it is quite easy to see this film as a rather heavy-handed piece of political activism, because Kingsley or his family are essentially fictitious; which gives the filmmakers a bit more freedom with regard to how they want to shape the narrative. Accordingly, it wouldn’t take much to fish out the more familiar beats out of the story and brandish them as examples of ham-fisted or propagandist storytelling meant to manipulate the audience emotionally. Granted, McQueen does not exactly leave too much open to interpretation when he sketches out the narrative with scenes of Kingsley’s reading problems being blatantly overlooked by his teachers, or ones where he is singled out as unruly and disruptive. Yes, he is using visual shorthand to telegraph certain things to the viewer, but he is not doing so because he doesn’t have the faculties to do it more subtly. He is choosing to do so because he wants the film’s scope to encompass way more than a cautionary tale about a racist educational policy adopted by the UK government at the time.
Ironically enough, Education is about much more than just education. Or more appropriately, the problem of disadvantaging children from poorer backgrounds (often from ethnic minorities) goes well beyond a simple policy that someone invented in Whitehall. McQueen wants to give you a glimpse of what it means when a problem is systemic and he wants to achieve that within the parameters of a seventy-minute-long quasi-feature film. To achieve that, he gives as much attention to Kingsley’s mother as he gives Kingsley himself. In fact, the film opens with the camera following her as she comes back home, early in the morning, from a night shift at a hospital. She walks through the door and joins her family as they are finishing their breakfast and shoot out the door. Her husband disappears to work and the kids run off to school. She then goes to have a shower, sits down on the bed, gathers herself and gets dressed again to go to work as a cleaner elsewhere. Anyone with two brain cells to rub together will be able to notice that the reason why she has no idea her son is failing at school is because she barely sees him. And the reason she barely sees him is because she has to work multiple jobs (presumably just as her husband does) to support her family. And the reason she has to work multiple jobs is because she lacks qualifications to work in a field that pays better. And the reason behind that is because she lacks education. Thus, the vicious circle is complete. The game is revealed to be rigged against families the Smiths are supposed to represent.
What is more, McQueen does not stop there. It is not enough to just single out a systemic issue ingrained well within the fabric of society that openly disadvantages families like the Smiths. He then moves on from blanket criticism – although he spares no expense critiquing the establishment who let this travesty take place – and reminds the viewer that it takes a village to raise a child. While it is correct and definitely encouraged to voice your concerns and demand justice from the government that is supposed to represent your interests, it is incumbent on us as parents and communities to take matters into our own hands and take care of our children’s education in the event the system fails to do so. While it is difficult or downright impossible for some – Kingsley’s father can’t read so how is he supposed to teach his child? – some of us are better equipped to do that and must step up to the plate.
We, the people, are the small axe capable of bringing down the big tree of oppression or disadvantage. McQueen ends his film on a hopeful note by showing how it is reduced to practice through a communal effort of putting together Saturday schools where kids from West Indian backgrounds are given extra attention, brought up to speed on their schooling and – most importantly – introduced to their own heritage they would not be taught at a regular English school. This is where they would learn that their ancestry is ancient and their lives should never be defined by the fairly recent history of slavery. They trace back to proud kings and queens ruling over vast empires which existed long before the white man set foot in Africa. And thus, this pride and is passed onto them so that they could teach their own children in the future. That’s education.
In a way, this little wrinkle brings the entire Small Axe series to a thematic closure as it illustrates perfectly the connective tissue underpinning its entire core. Between Mangrove, Lovers Rock, Red, White and Blue, Alex Wheatle and this film, Steve McQueen not only brought attention to extremely important societal issues, but also deconstructed into constituent parts a concept of collective responsibility any community must fulfil in order to survive and thrive. They must stand up for what’s right, stick together, defend one another, internalize their identity and take care of their children. That’s what turns a collection of people into a community, a community into a culture and a culture into a nation.