The unbreakable gaze of Steve McQueen: ‘I’m asking you, please, look’

by Ann Hornaday, Movie Critic | The Washington Post (reprinted)

There’s a moment in “Education,” the final installment of Steve McQueen’s anthology series “Small Axe,” that goes from absurd to surreal to tragic in the time it takes for a camera to travel across a classroom. While a group of alternately bored and confounded students look on, a fatuous teacher strums a guitar with earnest incompetence, singing a painfully amateurish version of “The House of the Rising Sun” through every last verse.

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.”

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