Written by Steve McQueen & Alistair Siddons
Directed by Steve McQueen
During the 1970s, it was discovered that some London councils were secretly following an unwritten policy to push Black children out of mainstream schools and into “subnormal” schools that were underfunded and poorly staffed. This practice was exposed by Bernard Coard, an education activist from Grenada who worked as a teacher in England. He found that this policy had a long-term effect of making children “neurotic about their race and culture.” This was yet another in a long line of exposure of systemic racism in Western culture directed at Black minds & bodies.
Education tells a fictionalized account of what one student suffering under this system could have gone through. Kingsley is a student at a London school who has a love for science but great difficulty reading. Teachers openly chastise and mock him in front of the other students, which has led to behavioral outbursts. The school’s headmaster informs Kingsley’s mother, Agnes, that they have decided to transfer Kingsley to Durrants, one of the schools for the “subnormal.” Kingsley quickly catches on after his first day at Durrants that this is a school for deeply disturbed and cognitively challenged students. He just simply needs help reading, and, indeed, he won’t get that here. A chance encounter with Hazel, an activist, posing as a reporter, connects Agnes with a group of parents who have read Coard’s pamphlet and are working against London schools’ systemic racism. Kingsley can attend a weekend school run by a kindly West Indian grandmother and starts to find pride in his people’s history and starts developing as a reader.
Education is my favorite of the Small Axe feelings, which likely comes from my bias as a teacher. While I don’t think education in the United States is this dire any longer, there is still a deep current of systemic racism running through much of the country. Seeing Kingsley’s profound turmoil over his inability to read when Agnes finally catches on and asks him to try in front of her struck a chord with me. I have seen so many students who were underserved by a system that is designed to have many students fail. It’s the poison of capitalism seeping into something that should be centered around enriching human beings to be their best. Instead, education has been forced into that same “winners & losers” dichotomy as our economy.
The school district I used to teach in literally had to have the Department of Justice intervene to desegregate it about six years ago. It became clear that school zone lines had been drawn to keep a couple of communities in the county as white as possible. The rhetoric online at the time was quite nauseating, with conservative white parents spewing hate about the idea that their child’s school might be “overrun with blacks.” The ultimate solution wasn’t to really desegregate but build a new elementary school as a halfway point to partially allow black students a unique opportunity. But this is a community in the Southeastern United States where Black people are outnumbered by conservative whites, so they don’t have much of an option if they don’t have the money to move elsewhere.
Much like the other pictures in this series of films, there is no definitive ending that shows everything will be okay. It appears that hope does still exist, but McQueen intentionally leaves things unclear as to what will become of Kingsley. It’s stated at one point that students slapped with his labels are given subpar housing, jobs, and wages. His family doesn’t necessarily have the power to remove him from Durrants, so they will have to work on the side to fix the problem. We also learn at the end that this Black parents group has written a letter to the newly appointed Minister of Education in the hopes she can help them. Her name is Margaret Thatcher, so you can assume where that will go.
I appreciate that McQueen doesn’t show the problem as solved. In this way, he reminds us that these issues endure today, shaped and transformed but still as insidious as ever. The difference now is that a more abundant light is shone upon them, and it has become increasingly harder for the racist perpetrators to act in the shadows. The Small Axe name comes from the West Indian saying, “If you are the tall tree, then we are the small axe.” That implies that it will not be a sudden toppling of power but a series of small strikes against a massive foe that will ultimately end with its collapse.