Education: The Ruin of Many a Poor Boy, by David Bax
Despite its boxy, throwback aspect ratio (1.66:1, I think; I didn’t bust out the tape measure), Education has a more modern look than Steve McQueen’s previous Small Axe films. It’s the saturated color timing that initially had me thinking its setting was nearly contemporary. But a mention of Margaret Thatcher’s recent appointment as Education Secretary (more on her later) places events in 1970. Perhaps making Education look new is McQueen’s way of reminding us that, though the Small Axe series is set in the past, its concerns remain tragically current.
Kingsley Smith (Kenyah Sandy) is a bright, rambunctious twelve-year-old student who nevertheless has serious difficulty reading. To a modern viewer, it’s almost immediately clear that he’s dyslexic or something to that effect. But his mother, Agnes (Sharlene Whyte), is informed that he will be transferred to a “special school” for the “educationally subnormal.” Eventually, thanks to the efforts of a couple of education activists (Josette Simon and Naomi Ackie), Agnes becomes aware of the systemic racism that disproportionately lands Black children in these institutions. She begins the long, difficult process of doing something about it.
Education‘s most discomforting scenes unfold in the place where Kingsley is sent. Calling it a school feels like a sick joke; it’s a horror show of a holding cell for kids the system doesn’t want. Kingsley’s teacher, when he bothers to show up for class, just practices his guitar as a lesson. And he can’t even do that right. After a lame, stammering rendition of “The House of the Rising Sun,” he incorrectly says, “Who wrote that, boys and girls? The Animals.” During this embarrassing performance, one student makes an impressive freehand sketch of the teacher, reminding us that Kingsley is not the only talented child stalled out in this awful place.
Illustrative moments like that are far more effective than McQueen and co-screenwriter Alastair Siddons overtly explanatory and sometimes dry scenes. In these duller sections, Education feels particularly thesis-driven, including scenes in which characters literally just read aloud from a pamphlet about “ESN” schools.
On the other hand, reading aloud from the writings of a male psychologist seems to be what it finally takes to get Kingsley’s uninvolved father (Daniel Francis) on board. That’s merely a byproduct of Agnes’ efforts, though. Education is a testament to the hard work and passion of Black women, from Agnes to the activists to Kingsley’s older sister, Stephanie (Tamara Lawrance). There’s a bitterly ironic moment when Thatcher’s appointment seems like a reason for optimism simply because of her gender. Knowing how that ended up, McQueen and Siddons are quick to drop a more inspiring reference to Black feminist journalist Claudia Jones into the very next scene.
Looking back on Small Axe, the sound I’ll most associate with the series is not reggae or rocksteady (or even lovers rock) but rather the sucking of teeth. It’s an all-purpose sound of disapproval, disappointment and vented anger used at various times by various characters throughout the anthology. What it’s not is the sound of surrender. It’s acknowledgment that something is wrong and that something needs to be done about it.