Movie Review: McQueen’s “Education” ends “Small Axe” series on a quieter note

Steve McQueen’s landmark “Small Axe” series, about the activist years of greater London’s West Indian diaspora, ends up an upbeat yet dramatically thinner and less satisfying than you’d hope note with “Education.”

The finale, set in the early ’70s, when the community, first turned to activism just a couple of years before, took on Britain’s educational system, the racial biases that farmed “problem” or “delayed development” children into schools they labeled “educationally subnormal.”

Immigrant women from Grenada, Trinidad, Jamaica and other former British colonies took on the “system” even as they came up with “Saturday schools” of their own devising, augmenting the outdated and even racist teaching going on in the country’s public schools.

McQueen shows this grassroots work-around and how it impacts the life of a dreamy, distracted boy named Kingsley (Kenyah Sandy). He is enraptured by a first visit to a planetarium, spends hours drawing rockets and hits his knees each night, prays to God that “I become an astronaut.”

But neither he not the school system he’s in are doing what it takes to help him realize that dream.

His parents (Sharlene Whyte, Daniel Francis) are working multiple jobs to raise him and older sister Stephanie (Tamara Lawrance) in working class comfort.

They don’t have to worry about Stephanie, a teen with designs on a career in fashion. Kingsley? He’s distracted, a bit of a cut-up with his friends. Because, you know, he’s 10. He also can’t read. The snickering of his classmates when he’s called on to read aloud doesn’t help, any more than the teacher who barks “Ya big BLOCKhead” at him.

His parents don’t pick up on this. He’s constantly in trouble. Then one day, the head master summons Mum in to sweet talk her into signing off on his reassignment to a “special school” Her boy, “notting but a heap’a trouble” at home, she declares — lazy, TV watching, chores-dodging — will get “the help he needs” with “more attention.”

The Durants School he’s sent to “evaluates” him on arrival, in a group that includes another West Indian child like him and a white girl who barks and meows in answer to every question. That’s the last moment anyone gives him a thought, and the last effort any educator makes to reach him.

Durants and schools like it during the era when Margaret Thatcher was Conservative Education Secretary, on her way to being Prime Minister, were warehouses where lazy, racist and tuned-out teachers often couldn’t be bothered to so much as show up.

The most chilling moment, one that comes after a psychotherapist and activist (Naomie Ackie) has visited the school and witnessed the chaotic conditions there, shows a teacher who has finally showed up for class, only to serenade the little “helpless” cases with the folk ballad “House of the Rising Sun.” McQueen has the plucking, singing actor (Stewart Wright, I think) perform the entire ode to a New Orleans brothel, every verse, missing a note here and there.

“And who knows who wrote that?” he chirps at the end of almost five minutes of killing time. “The Animals. The Animals.” The lump doesn’t know the song pre-dates the Brit rockers by hundreds of years.

The limited drama of “Education” comes from the rising fury of Kingsley’s mother, and the pushback she gets from her carpenter/laborer husband. He isn’t there for the lectures she gets from a local organizer (Josette Simon) who talks about the government reports detailing the racial biases in The System and the ways “educationally subnormal” labels and special schools sideline kids for life and vastly reduce their earning potential and chances of working their way into the middle class. Dad is fine with the kid “learning a trade,” which is all his generation could hope for.

A white school chum of Kingsley’s echoes this when he dismisses the kid’s desire to become an an astronaut. “You can’t have a Black man in space!”

The community activists, pitching in with supplementary teaching on weekends, are shown for who they were — heroes in the struggle identified in most of the other films of “Small Axe” (which takes its name from a Bob Marley song). “Education” was the answer for McQueen and kids in his community aspiring for “the dream” their parents brought with them when they emigrated.

But I was hoping for a bigger punch in the payoff, with Kingsley Smith being some real-life success story like “Alex Wheatle,” the subject of the previous “Small Axe” film, or somebody who grew up to become an activist himself.

The kid is a thinly-developed character. His mother and his sister say “He’s not stupid, he’s very bright.” But we see no evidence of that. We’re shown no reason why, in his wholly-integrated original school, with East Indians and West Indians, white, brown and black children, he is the one who hasn’t learned to read.

The “bullying” teachers are shown and “cultural biases” in IQ tests are explained. Activists point to parents who have to take a more active role in education, and we see evidence of that. But yanking kids away from TV hardly covers that territory.

So while I can see why McQueen would turn to this corner of activism in the rise of West Indian Britons for one episode of a series that highlights street protests against police racism, a West Indian man (played by John Boyega) who makes it his business to integrate the force personally, small business owners and ordinary people radicalized by the racist retrenchment from white culture and white officialdom, I think “Education” comes closest to missing the mark.

It’s brief, but not so much to-the-point as wandering around it for an hour. And while it doesn’t spoil the effect of the whole, it does feel wanting as a finale. It’s the dullest “Small Axe” of the five.

MPA Rating: TV-MA, profanity

Cast: Kenyah Sandy, Sharlene Whyte, Tamara Lawrance, Josette Simon, Daniel Francis and Naomi Ackie

Credits: Directed by Steve McQueen, script by Steve McQueen, Alastair Siddons. An Amazon Prime release.

Running time: 1:03

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