“Education” – A dulled Axe [MOVIE REVIEW]
“Education,” the fifth in writer-director Steve McQueen’s “Small Axe” series about West Indian life in London, receives a failing grade. Co-written with Alastair Siddons, “Education” was intended to illustrate the segregation and prejudice that begins early in the British educational system. Revealing this systemic bias in the story of bright-eyed, exuberant, and often inappropriate Kingsley does not entirely support its premise.
Kingsley is the 12 year-old son of parents who are at cross-purposes for their child. Mother, a nurse, is a tough taskmaster who believes that education is fundamental and that it is only by working harder than anyone else that barriers set up against them as immigrants of color can be overcome. Kingsley’s older sister is the very embodiment of her mother’s theories. She’s university-bound with her life’s plan already set in her mind. Kingsley’s father, a carpenter, is having none of it and believes that Kingsley’s path to success is to drop out of school and apprentice with him.
Kingsley is an exuberant child who raises just enough hell in school to target him. None of his antics are malicious but, under ordinary circumstances with any other white child such acts would result in a visit to the headmaster’s office and a slap on the wrist, metaphorically speaking. But the path of least resistance for his school is to send Kingsley, who is also having trouble academically, to a “special” school where, the headmaster assures his mother, he will get more individualized help. What everyone, from his teachers to his parents, have glossed over is that all of his difficulties, including his attempts at distraction, are a cover-up for the fact that he cannot read. He has been passed along for years without anyone addressing this fundamental difficulty.
So, off he goes to the “special” school where the teachers don’t teach, where the students run wild, where some of the children are clearly special needs, some are behavior problems, and others are merely of color.
McQueen’s and Siddon’s intentions were to show how the system was biased against children like Kingsley. But just because you say it in expositional dialogue, doesn’t underscore your case. Perhaps they were attempting too much in the short, one hour format. Framed by two women originally from the islands who hold a town hall for the parents of West Indian children, they outline the problems that will be faced when their children are relegated to “special” schools. They deliver an expository speech on what the problem is and how to fix it. Flash forward to their Saturday school where Kingsley learns to read and fade out.
Even by television standards, McQueen’s approach to this story is superficial. There is no character development. One day Kingsley’s mother is an unfeeling, overworked, insensitive woman and seemingly overnight she understands the problems her son is dealing with and in an about-face, she becomes caring and sympathetic.
The teachers at both schools are disinterested and uninvolved. The problems, to use a clichéd and too on-the-nose expression, are black and white. Nowhere is there a discussion or examination of how it was possible to pass a child through 6 years of school never noticing or acknowledging that he couldn’t read. Did he have other academic strengths that would have emphasized the unfairness of sending him to the school for the “sub-normal”?
“Education” is a very frustrating “small axe.” There are lots of things it could have and should have been. One thing it is not is illuminating. The problem they focus on was not and still is not singularly race-based. It is a failure of education. For their premise, bias against West Indians in schools, they needed a stronger base, less exposition, and more character development. In young Kenya Sandy as Kingsley they had a charismatic and sympathetic lead. Showing how the system failed him, specifically as a child and generally as the child of West Indian immigrants, would have improved the film enormously. McQueen focused exclusively on Kingsley’s so-called misdeeds. He missed the opportunity to show that his white cohort may have gotten away with similar actions.
“Education” is a series of missed opportunities and broad generalizations that McQueen and Siddons want us to take on their word. As Bob Marley wrote, “So if you are the big tree, we are the small axe. Ready to cut you down.” This small axe missed the tree.
Premiering December 18 on Amazon Prime.
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