Small Axe: Education
Hal: The last of Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series, Education, is a fitting end to the series, possibly the strongest entry since its first and arguably both the saddest and most hopeful, both due in no small part to the focus on children. Having tackled the courts, the police force, the music scene and child adoption services, the series finally concludes with a look at the education system.
A consistent background theme of family has been developing in the most recent entries Red White and Blue and Alex Wheatle, and it really comes home with the story of Kingsley Smith, a bright, sensitive young boy who struggles with reading, who the education authority sends to a ‘special’ school. When he arrives he discovers that it’s no school at all, and just somewhere they send the children they have given up on, with a tendency to give up on black children all the quicker, creating a Catch-22 of social immobility.
My own parents watched the film with me, and my father, who briefly taught at an ESN (Educationally Subnormal) school in the early ’70s, assured me that the portrait McQueen offers here was accurate. For once, music plays a relatively small role in the story, and both prominent moments of song are framed negatively. One scene that is by degrees, dryly funny, heartbreaking and deliberately patience testing, shows the teacher self-interestedly strum the entirety of “House of the Rising Sun” at his class of agonisingly under stimulated children, their lives and futures draining out through the cracks in the floorboards with every chord change.
Each of the four members of the Smith household have their own miniature arcs, as they each discover what they need to avoid the trap British society has lain for them. In every case, the answer lies in the film’s title. However, the overworked mother becomes central in the second half as she becomes politicised through realising what is being done to her son and many others like him. The harsh, isolating treatment given to Kingsley is handled with an acute degree of maturity and sensitivity and the cast all give perfectly seamless performances.
There’s a streamlined simplicity to each of the Small Axe films that’s perhaps better displayed here than in any of the others, each part a puzzle piece in the vast canvas of London life in the 20th Century. McQueen and his co-writer Alastair Siddons are adept at observing and selecting homely details that ground the viewer in the world the piece is showing and this replicates on the macro-level of each of the films themselves. It wouldn’t surprise me if a sequel series was announced at some point in the future, as there’s certainly more ground one could imagine covering, but the five films each offer very different perspectives and experiences, each rooted in the same issues. The film’s thereby serve their two primary functions: exploring the political undercurrents affecting the lives of black communities in Britain, and simply making the figures of the past feel seen, back-filling a missing piece of British history. McQueen and his collaborators are to be highly commended for achieving this end with such artful grace, while holding dearly onto the people they are portraying.
Those are our recommendations this week! What are yours? Let us know in the comments! And don’t forget to head over and see what We’re Just Playing this week!