Steve McQueen’s Small Axe portmanteau of five roughly hourlong films centered on racial issues in second-half 20th century UK wraps up with Education, which, at the end of the day, is what the series is all about: education in terms of the efforts of different segments of the population to begin to understand each other, to cast off ill-informed presumptions and long-entrenched prejudices, creating more opportunities and learning that the “other” should ideally create more possibilities than problems in a newly multi-racial society, if, in the end, citizens can open up to it all. Although British cinema for decades has looked long and hard at class distinctions, investigating racial divides of the past half-century in such a comprehensive way is something quite rare; this alone makes the series something unique. There are takeaways here for every segment of the audience, both domestic and foreign, young and old.
About a half-million West Indians immigrated to the UK between 1948-68; McQueen himself was born in London the following year. I’ve reviewed all the series segments as they’ve unfurled on Amazon Prime and now that they’re all out there in the world for all to see, it’s clear that the quintet is something more than just the sum of its five parts; while not remotely pretending to present a comprehensive view of British racial issues, the very direct way McQueen and co-writers (on different episodes) Alastair Siddons and Courttia Newland have tackled the subject has been bracing and eye-opening, given how seldom and glancingly the topic has ever come up on British screens.
The series leads off with Mangrove, about late 1960s police raids on a Notting Hill Caribbean-style restaurant that triggered street combat and ultimately a raucous trial at the Old Bailey; after having seen all five installments, this one remains for me the most impressive. Three of the five titles focus upon outright police abuse and/or violence committed on the immigrant population; overall, they create a picture of how unprepared the British government and citizens alike were to effectively and positively deal with the new arrivals in the decades after World War II.
Related: Film Review: ‘Mangrove’
All the programs are stand-alones, with fresh casts and concerns. The most unusual, as well as the least consequential dramatically and politically, is Lovers Rock, an account of a 1980s house party in which a couple of DJs madly spin records while everyone else makes contact, dances, gets high and generally has a great time. The music drops you right into the moment, but aside from sweetly portraying the birth of what might later become an intimate relationship, hardly anything happens here. It’s a bath of warm and agreeable vibes, one that seems to send music fans and hard-core romantics over the moon. But I was looking for something a bit more consequential, and just listening to all the groovy tunes (many of them very familiar) simply didn’t feel very consequential.
Related: Film Review: ‘Lovers Rock’
Considerably more eventful and powerful, if sadly predictable, is Red, White and Blue, the true story of a black London cop who tried to reform the racist police department; he might as well have been trying to convince the British government to adopt Finnish as the official language. Equally dire and violent is Alex Wheatle, which centers on a poor teenager who becomes swept up in the 1981 Brixton uprising only, sweetly, to discover the joys of literature. Both of these combine the power of the cause they promote with the tragedy of how long it took for society to even begin to do the right thing.
Which leaves us, at the end, with Education. What could be more important than that? So important, according to the film, that the government, secretly and systematically, downgraded countless minorities from mainstream educations to ESN—Educationally Sub-Normal—schools, which in practice doomed these students to a lifetime of low-end jobs and lives.
One feels keenly the rejection and almost guaranteed marginal life to be experienced by 12-year-old Kingsley (Kenyah Sandy), an agreeable youngster who, it is shortly discovered, can’t really read. Unfortunately, the film glosses over this fact and a big question mark hangs over the issue of how a kid of that age could have made it this far through school without this problem being noticed by either his teachers or parents.
Still, it doesn’t excuse the fact that many kids are arbitrarily being sent to dead-end institutions where teachers don’t even show up and kids can come and go at will. In the film’s press notes, McQueen allows that, “I lived Kingsley’s life. The family was very similar to mine.”
In the film, young Kingsley is so appalled and embarrassed by his new station in life that he can barely discuss it. But some angry parents jump into the breach, at first establishing some supplementary “Saturday Schools” and putting a spotlight on the problem.
At the same time, Kingsley visits a planetarium for the first time and is transported. “Can I please be an astronaut like Neil Armstrong?,” the boy prays to God, and the possibilities beyond his constricted world begin to come into focus for him.
It’s impossible not to feel great sympathy for Kingsley and all the other kids who have been railroaded onto the educational sidings. But there’s too much material here to do dramatic justice to it in one hour; a great deal is quickly glossed over (including the elevation of the young Margaret Thatcher to the cabinet position of Secretary of State for Education and Science) and it proves difficult to convincingly chart the flowering of Kingsley from a scared and illiterate kid into a teenager who suddenly sees possibilities in the outside world.
But these are mostly problems of having too much to say and simply not enough time to say it. As the introduction to a famous earlier show put it, “There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them.” Now we have five about West Indian Londoners. May there be more.
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