As the camera pans away from the teacher, who is White, it eventually lands on 12-year-old Kingsley (Kenyah Sandy), who has buried his head into his arms in an act that can be read as abject surrender or disgusted defiance. Either way, it’s a heartbreaking pieta, communicating in one agonizing image how, in the 1970s, the British school system systematically failed an entire postwar generation, especially children of African and Caribbean descent.
The scene is more than a metaphor, according to McQueen. It’s inspired by his own life. “That happened,” the filmmaker said in November, when he Zoomed in from Amsterdam, where he lives with his wife and son. (They also have a daughter in her 20s.) “It was that song. [The teacher] brought his guitar, obviously it was his thing, and we were his audience. And the fact that it was . . . by the Animals was kind of interesting, too. But at the time, I knew it. I was alert to it. But it was like — you know that horrible feeling when you’re awake but you’re still asleep, and you’re saying, ‘Wake up, wake up, wake up’? It was like that.”
The “it” McQueen refers to is the practice of segregating Black students into schools for the “educationally subnormal,” where they were warehoused, neglected and funneled into menial jobs. Although the formal system was largely dismantled by the time McQueen was Kingsley’s age, he remembers being similarly tracked. He attended a school in which some students were shuttled into a program “very much targeted to get children into Oxford and Cambridge.” He and his working-class peers, on the other hand, were “put on the fast lane” to become a manual worker. “My path was mapped out for me,” he recalls ruefully.
Throughout the five-part “Small Axe” series that launched on Amazon Nov. 15, McQueen explores a variety of stories centered on the West Indian community in London, starting with “Mangrove,” which recounts the 1971 trial of the “Mangrove Nine,” activists who were accused of incitement to riot after demonstrating against police brutality and harassment. The series has also included “Red, White and Blue,” about police officer and reformer Leroy Logan, and “Alex Wheatle,” about the eponymous young-adult author.
“Education” (Dec. 18) is the most autobiographical film in the anthology, based in large part on McQueen’s own experience growing up with his older sister in West London with a mother from Trinidad and a father from Grenada. In the film, Kingsley is obsessed with space and astronauts, manifesting his dreams in colorful, detailed drawings. His father has no time for such fantasies, insisting the boy prepare for a trade. A similar conflict with his own father, and the years it took to understand its roots, account for how long it’s taken for McQueen to bring this part of his story to the screen.
“You know, I never really had a conversation with my father until I was a certain age,” he observes. “At all. It was always, ‘Children are to be seen and not heard.’ ” As he grew older, McQueen began to understand his father’s stunted ambitions for his son as the product of fear, not hostility. He recounts a story that his father told him right before he died at 68, about a time when he was working as a migrant fruit picker in Florida. When he and two Jamaican co-workers went into town for a drink, a bartender refused to serve one of them, using a racial epithet. The man smashed a bottle over the server’s head, and the three laborers ran toward the workers’ camp when “two large bangs” rang out. After spending hours hiding in a ditch, McQueen’s father returned to the migrant camp. He never saw the other two men again.
McQueen was astonished by what he heard. “I thought, ‘My God, my father’s been carrying that story around with him all these years,’ ” McQueen recalls. “At the same time, [he was] having that fear for me, and having to be protective of me. I understood all the arguments [about] ‘Get a trade’ and ‘Don’t worry about art’ because he wanted something no one could take away from me. And he knew that this precarious life we live as artists could be taken away from you by White people. Because what’s seen as valuable in art was in the hands of White people.”
At 51, looking back at what he was up against as a boy, McQueen says that “the only thing that got me through it was that I could draw. Art was the only thing which allowed me to divert that route and have a bigger possibility. That was it.” He went on to study art, design and film (including a brief stint at New York University), eventually becoming a sought-after installation artist and, in 1999, winning the Turner Prize, Britain’s highest honor in visual arts, named for the painter J.M.W. Turner. Although his artworks often entailed video and cinematic references, he didn’t make his narrative feature debut until 2008 with the drama “Hunger.” Five years later, he directed “12 Years a Slave,” which became the first movie directed by a Black filmmaker to win an Oscar for best picture.
It’s the kind of assured trajectory that would be otherwise unremarkable for an artist blessed with talent, self-belief and an indefatigable work ethic. But in “Education,” McQueen makes agonizingly clear just how precarious his path was. At one point in the film, a group of parents form community-based schools to try to counter the damage being done to their children within the system; Kingsley’s mother, who works two jobs, takes a recruitment pamphlet and distractedly puts it away. In one of the film’s most breath-catching scenes, Kingsley’s entire future seems to pivot on whether she will forget about the pamphlet or pick it up and read it.
“His life is in the balance,” McQueen says. “And of course, this is very similar to my journey. It could have gone left, it could have gone right. And I’m the exception. A lot of my friends didn’t even make it.”
From the beginning of his narrative career, McQueen has developed his own cinematic language, which is in full force throughout the films that make up “Small Axe.” Whether in such fact-based dramas as “Mangrove,” “Red, White and Blue” and “Alex Wheatle” or the more expressionistic “Lovers Rock,” he demonstrates an eye for detail, as acute when it comes to human gestures and behaviors as to the clothes they wear and the paper they hang on their walls. And, as he did in “Hunger” and has done in every movie since, he has a penchant for filming a scene and then staying on it, long after other mainstream Hollywood filmmakers would have cut.
Cameron Bailey, artistic director and co-head of the Toronto International Film Festival, praises McQueen for his unfailing instinct to “kind of zoom in on a moment of everyday life” and invite the audience to focus on it intensely. “And he does it by using what cinema has as one of its main tools, which is time. He’ll let a moment play out way past when you think it should normally end, and when you get past that discomfort with, ‘Wait, this is still going on? I’m still watching this conversation?’ or ‘I’m still watching this dance sequence?’ then, suddenly, it’s like a door opens, and you see it in a different way. It’s just spectacular, and he does it so brilliantly.”
McQueen has employed that strategy throughout the “Small Axe” series: In “Lovers Rock,” a raucous house party reaches an ethereal high point when the revelers spontaneously break out into an extended a cappella version of the reggae dance hit “Silly Games.” In “Mangrove,” after a particularly violent sequence set in the cafe where much of the film takes place, he trains the camera on a clattering colander as it comes to a gradual rest.
The goal, McQueen says, is “to look, and to look again. Sometimes you do want to look away, you do want to blink, you want to avert your gaze. But I’m asking you, please, look. It’s hard, but at the same time, there’s going to be a reward [if] you have the courage to look.”
As confrontational as his images often are, McQueen adds, his instinct to linger on them allows for a form of recovery. “It’s also about lulling,” he says. “The colander in some ways is [there] to lull you. Okay, this stuff has happened, but you [have] a moment to digest, to sort of take it in, to reflect. And then we move on.”
For Bailey, whose parents were from Barbados, the “Small Axe” films have provided connection to a time his parents rarely spoke about. “I know that those parties, where they could feel safe and listen to their music, were so precious to them,” he says. Watching “Mangrove” and “Lovers Rock,” he notes, was tantamount to a deeply personal excavation. “I felt that I was actually uncovering some of their history,” he says. “They both passed in the last three years. And they only told me so much, but these films are really opening up that world for me.”
The historian Paul Gilroy, who served as a consultant for the series, had a similarly emotional reaction to the films, especially when he saw them on the big screen. “Mangrove” dramatizes a crucial case in the British civil rights struggle, and “Lovers Rock” simply expresses Black joy and culture. Those films and the rest of the “Small Axe” series, he says, “force you to face something quite uncomfortable, which is how little of our lives has ever been shown. How little of that history has ever been rendered in a complex way.”
McQueen’s determination to show complexity and his refusal to shy from graphic depictions of violence and trauma have led some viewers to accuse him of going too far. He sees an analogy with some critics taking issue with the courtroom statements in “Mangrove.”
“You get certain people who say, ‘Well, that’s too long,’ ” McQueen says. “Or they use certain words to [suggest] that they know it already.” His frustration becomes more palpable as he speaks. “This is the first time Black people were allowed to speak and cross-examine and pointedly engage with the establishment with no filter. But you get White people saying, ‘That’s too much.’ ”
So far, “Small Axe” has been met with rapturous reviews, both in Britain, where it played on the BBC, and in the United States. The fact that it’s being streamed into homes, instead of projected in theaters, has given the project an immediacy and reach McQueen wasn’t prepared for. “I feel depressed today, to be honest,” he says with a sheepish laugh. “It’s been very emotional.” But, he’s quick to add, he’s also happy. “What we’ve done is let a lot of people be recognized. And there’s something about someone looking at themselves and seeing other people see themselves and [their story] being seen as important enough to be on TV. That’s huge.”
McQueen recalls hearing from his sister when she first saw “Mangrove”; she told him it made her want to shout at the screen. “I think it was a case of: ‘I exist. We exist,’ ” he suggests. “It was about real understanding, but also the fact that something so specific can be universal. That’s what’s been so beautiful about this.”