Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series, one of the year’s greatest achievements of film, television, or whatever you want it to call it, wraps up this week with Education, another smaller story, but still a well-executed one.
While not based on a singular historical story like Mangrove, Red White and Blue, or Alex Wheatle, Education — the final installment, which airs on Amazon Prime beginning Friday — is more of a coming-of-age story about a historical tendency in England for West Indian children to be shunted off to the equivalent of special education. It’s part of both Britain’s merciless class system, and the racial inequality faced by West Indian immigrants who arrived in that country in the 1960s and ’70s.
While Mangrove, Red White and Blue and Alex Wheatle were fact-based stories, and Lover’s Rock was based on the sorts of parties that used to take place in the ’70s, which McQueen remembers his aunt sneaking off to, Education is a fictional but personal project for the director: It’s based in part on his own experiences. It’s also a rare Small Axe installment that doesn’t include any major clash between citizens and law enforcement.
The film, which runs a little over an hour, follows a 12-year-old boy named Kingsley (Kenyah Sandy), who’s going to school in 1970s London. The film starts with a scene at a planetarium, which later comes full circle to represent the character’s evolution.
A sweet-natured kid, and not a trouble maker, Kingsley struggles with reading. And so he’s soon sent to a different, considerably inferior school, where plays “The House of a Rising Sun” on guitar and there’s not much learning going on. These schools, the movie makes clear, is where the state put kids on whom they’d essentially given up.
Eventually, a social worker (Naomi Ackie, from The Rise of Skywalker, and recently cast to play Whitney Houston in the upcoming biopic) and a group of activists (led by Josette Simon) team up to advocate for Kingsley and point out the unfairness of the system, and eventually he’s set on a path to a better life. McQueen, he has said in interviews, went through something similar as a boy.
It may not be as big a story or as great an achievement as Mangrove, Lovers Rock, or Red White and Blue. But Education is a fine film that’s specific to the Britain of the past, while also carrying lessons about education inequality closer to home.