- Emma Simmonds
- 7 December 2020
Steve McQueen's Small Axe closer is a rigorously believable, extremely emotional schooldays drama
The way the British educational establishment has failed Black students is spotlighted in this righteous and eye-opening family drama, the fifth and final part of Steve McQueen's unforgettable Small Axe series. Expanding on the points he made in Alex Wheatle about arming yourself with knowledge, McQueen follows 12-year-old Kingsley Smith (Kenyah Sandy) as he is forced from the regular school system in the early 1970s and placed in a 'special' school.
Kingsley's hard-working nurse mother, Agnes (a superb performance from Perfect 10's Sharlene Whyte), is too exhausted to be watchful, assuming those who have Kingsley's future in their hands will do the best for her boy. And so, when a patronising headmaster (Adrian Rawlins) frames Kingsley switching schools as a 'great opportunity', she doesn't challenge him. The institution he ends up at is anything but special, in fact with its absence of supervision and learning, it's barely a school at all.
Eventually, it's brought to Agnes's attention that the system she has placed her trust in has bias built into it and that the authorities have been targeting West Indian children for placement in these 'sub-normal' schools, where standards are as poor as the students' prospects afterwards. There's lovely work from the fabulous Naomi Ackie, Josette Simon and Jo Martin as a heroic trio of local women who take matters into their own hands – infiltrating educational settings, reaching out to Black parents and filling in gaps in learning themselves. They, in turn, light a fire under Agnes when the extent of the authorities' deception and racism is revealed.
Bearing in mind that we're talking about limiting the life chances of children, it's extremely emotional stuff. Sandy is a very appealing young actor and McQueen does a phenomenal job of banging the drum whilst creating rigorously believable domestic drama, presenting an unidealised but basically loving family set-up, while series cinematographer Shabier Kirchner bolsters the period authenticity with a grainy, ever-so-slightly washed-out and aged aesthetic. With scandals relating to the exclusion of Black pupils still making headlines, it remains shamefully relevant, but exploring and opening people's eyes to such injustices is essential. It's also a fitting note for McQueen to end his anthology on; focusing on the next generation is the best place to begin if we're going to start righting these wrongs.
Available to watch on BBC One at 9pm on Sun 13 Dec.