Education, the fifth and final entry in director Steve McQueen's Small Axe anthology is almost certainly the most straightforward: as a narrative, a delivery system for a political message, as an aesthetic object. Whether this is good or bad is in the eye of the beholder; for myself, I will not pretend to be a little let down, especially on the heels ofΒ the borderline-experimental Alex Wheatle that McQueen would just to end things so simply, though it's probably fair to ask why this episode is so much less complex than anything else in Small Axe. I can think of a couple possibilities. For one thing, it's about a child, and that perhaps lends itself to a certain unrestrained bluntness: there can be no room for nuance or subtlety when a child's wellbeing is at stake. For another, it's at least mildly autobiographical, and I wonder if McQueen was feeling a bit inclined towards making something rawer and more direct as a result. While the film is based on no specific incident, it depicts a common problem facing schoolchildren of West Indian descent in London in the 1970s, when it was common practice to consign these students to schools for the "educationally subnormal", based on IQ tests and a report summarising them that artificially deflated their scores in large part because of the dialect they spoke. McQueen was one such child; not the one we meet in Education, 12-year-old Kingsley Smith (Kenyah Sandy), though their struggles with blatantly indifferent, if not outright hostile white educators have some of the same details, and both ended up shunted in the same sub-par schools that trapped a tremendous number of Black children in the 1970s, limiting them to a lifetime of practically non-existent education, and all the closed doors that an adulthood on the backside of that education would entail.

Education presents, in 63 brisk minutes (this is the shortest Small Axe episode - less than half the length of Mangrove, in fact), Kingsley's irresistible plunge into this hell and the horrors that greet him there, running in tandem with the story of his mother, Agnes (Sharlene Whyte), moving from a confidence that the state has the best interest of her son at heart, as it tosses him into this grotesque parody of a learning institution, to the shock and outrage and guilt at discovering that, on the contrary, Kingsley has just been buried away because nobody wanted to have to deal with stepping an inch out of their comfort zone in helping him learn the way he needs to learn. It makes it clear at the outset that Kingsley is a bright, curious child, showing his face lighting up with beatific joy at a planetarium exhibit inviting him to ponder all of the ineffable wonders of the universe; his white teachers are introduced right in the middle of snappish impatience, giving us an immediately awful feeling of just overwhelming, pointless hostility with no origin point.

This swiftness with which the film introduces Kingsley and his world, like a series of crescendos without buildup, gives Education a gut-level power right at that start that gets us off to a quick, harried beginning; I am tempted to say that it's the only time that the abbreviated length of this episode works to its advantage. 63 minutes is an awfully short amount of time to give us complete arcs for two characters (Agnes turns out to be practically a co-lead), while also clearly demonstrating the ridiculously blatant racism that sent Kingsley to that special school, as well as making sure we get a good long sense of just how broken and unacceptable the treatment of students is there, with room left over for an introduction to the educational activists who reasoned that Black immigrants were going to have to help each other and fast if an entire generation wasn't going to be lost in the greats of the school system. Indeed 63 minutes turns out to be much too little time for all of that, particularly given the strange indulgence of showing one of the awful teachers at the special school subjecting his classroom to a terrible performance of "House of the Rising Sun", almost the whole damn song. I get the point: it's a torturous scene, for us as well as the students, and by making us sit through it in all its hideousness, McQueen and co-writer Alastair Siddons are dramatising the feeling of our time being utterly, ruinously wasted. A longer version of Education could make that play, and make it pretty well, I bet. In this version of Education, that is literally the only time that the film ever lingers on a moment that isn't strictly narratively necessary, and just seems pointlessly stretched-out and aimless.

This sense of racing through the narrative means that Education has very little room to do anything other than simply tell us what we already know, from other movies about kids being oppressed by schooling and just by being alive: educators would rather imprison challenging students than deal with them; poor parents aren't afforded the resources to make informed decisions about their children's education; standardised testing is culturally determined in ways that penalise immigrants, non-native speakers, and anyone else who isn't part of the macroculture; one kind, thoughtful educator intervening in a child's life at a crucial point can be the sole thing that allows that child to thrive. Oddly enough for the most explicitly personal episode of Small Axe, this feels the least specific; despite Sandy's excellent performance, which demonstrates Kingsley's precocious self-awareness and bitterness towards a system he already realises hates him, Education never affords itself the room to really figure out who its protagonist is. He likes space. And that's not really even something that gets brought in for much of the middle.

To put a point on it just as blunt asΒ Education makes its own points: this is the one episode of Small Axe that feels like a by-the-books message movie, concerned with making sure we have learned the lesson we're supposed to, and only secondarily concerned with drama, character psychology, and art. Which isn't to say that it isn't concerned with those things. In fact, Education has some awfully crafty cinematography from Shabier Kirchner; it is shot in the narrow 1.66:1 aspect ratio, to begin with, much closer to square than any other episode, and this ends up mattering a lot. It makes the film seem smaller and chunkier, drab and uncinematic in a way. And this is married to contrasty naturalistic lighting, leading to a more diffuse, noisy image. I hesistate to say it's "ugly", because it's clearly being done on purpose. And the purpose is to exaggerate the inhuman situation Kingsley is dropped into (notably, some of these elements are scaled back in the later part of the film, when he is finally given the helping hand it takes to start the process of saving himself). It's the least-showy part of Small Axe, but this gets back to its bluntness and directness: it's about a child, and made with a force that even a child couldn't miss.

Which is all well and good, but after the vividness and subtlety and intellectual craftiness of the first four parts of Small Axe, getting such an unyielding "this is bad, this is good" declaration feels like a waste of McQueen's skills. So is getting something that races so hard through so much of its plot. Still, the acting is good, and the film's obvious outrage at the situation it's depicting has bite, and those are enough to get us the film's final third or so, which is quite strong and even uplifting in a cautious, provisional way: not because things are good now, but because a path for bringing goodness back has been discovered, lets say. There is a real sense of small but important triumph in the film's conclusion that makes the previous minutes all feel worth it. It's still not enough to keep this from being my least-favorite part of Small Axe, and a mildly disappointing finale; but this series has set itself some very high bars to clear, so even mild disappointment is, well, pretty mild.