“One of the ways in which the school system thinks they can treat us is that they genuinely believe we are all a bunch of — I don’t know — cowhands. They never assumed that the same spread of intelligence, professional careers, white-collar jobs, blue-collar jobs that you have in this country, we would have had where we came from.”
The final entry in Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anothology, Education explores the sidelining of West Indian children’s schooling through a policy of pushing them out of the regular school system and into “Educationally Sub-Normal” ESN schools. These poorly run institutions reinforced a system already stacked against them, eradicating prospects of success or a desire to better oneself. Although the shortest in the series, the script’s narrow focus avoids the issues of Alex Wheatle in becoming spread too thin. We start and remain mostly with Kingsley, but the film’s perspective does shift briefly to other members of the Smith household: we see his mother’s frustration and then defensiveness and guilt that she lacks the time to be as involved as she would like in her child’s life; we see his sister’s concern as the one who can best see what is happening to her brother; and we see his father’s sense that the family views his manual work with disdain. Education portrays the failure of ESN schools through the boredom of the classroom with students either unchallenged or unsupervised. A teacher playing an extended rendition of House of the Rising Sun on acoustic guitar feels like a deliberate inversion of Jack Black in School of Rock: an uninspiring teacher with a disintereseted class who would prefer to be taught. The confrontation and resolution occurs without much friction, but there are some powerful admissions of how first generation immigrants feel about the country and what they find themselves passing on to their children. Perhaps the most lasting impression for me is one that remains valid today: how galling it was to hear a child describe the history of his ancestors as being slaves, having been taught nothing of the rich culture that predated British colonisation.
“There’s enough talk of ism and schism and racism. Me no defend nobody against the charge of racism, cos Rasta don’t discriminate. But the main thing you have to worry about in dis here country is the system of class and classism.”
The penultimate film of Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology, Alex Wheatle is a biopic of the British novelist’s early life, culminating with the New Cross fire and the 1981 Brixton riot. The weakest entry in the anthology, it exudes a made-for-TV quality that its siblings escape, routinely feeling restricted in scope and scale. This is not helped by the short running time at just over an hour. As presented on screen, Wheatle is a difficult character with whom to engage since his response to adversity is to dissociate: his vacant visage belies any emotional depth in contrast to similarly lingering shots of Boyega in Red, White and Blue or Shaun Parkes in Mangrove. This is not to say that we feel no sympathy for him; plainly he suffered spending his childhood in the social care system, without family and mistreated by authority figures at home and school. The film is strongest during Wheatle’s fish-out-of-water arrival in London where his Surrey upbringing stands in contrast to the city’s black community with its strong cultural ties. The most telling moment is his naïve response to a warning about the police, “They’re here to help you.” Unfortunately the rapid pacing means we do not really see his character develop organically; instead we are simply presented with scattershot versions — DJ, dealer — occasionally revealing the broken child beneath. It is further fractured by a prison framing device that offers little beyond some fairly trite wisdom from his Rastafarian cellmate. Although it may be disappointing, a weaker entry in the context of an anthology as strong as Small Axe is not to be discounted entirely.
“These are new men, new types of human beings. These men have perspective. Know particularly that they glory in the struggle. They are not demoralized or defeated or despairing persons. They are leaders, but are rooted deep among those they lead.”
The first of Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology, Mangrove is an emotionally powerful courtroom drama chronicling the true story of the Mangrove Nine, falsely charged with riot and affray following a protest. That this powerful indictment of systemic racial injustice should be released in the same year as the Black Lives Matter protests could not be more fitting. A joyous opening celebrates the Mangrove restaurant’s opening, but also Notting Hill’s multiculturalism at large. However, it is swiftly overtaken by brutal police raids, one simple yet haunting shot lingering for a half minute on a spinning colander, forcing the viewer to take in the destruction and pain that lingers long after the police depart. As a whole, the film hits the expected beats for its subject matter but is elevated by its thoughtful artistry. Shaun Parkes and Letitia Wright provide the film’s emotional core as allies but ideoligical adversaries within the black community. Whilst the sneering PC Pulley is an easy caricature, a more telling scene shows his impassive reaction to a black mother’s grief at her finding that her child has been beaten in custody: the man truly believes he is restoring a natural order that is challenged by the black community’s self-sufficiency. The courtroom itself is a microcosm of the wider world, unwilling to acknowledge racial injustice until it is no longer avoidable. When Frank Crichlow is thrown into a jail cell, the camera gazes up at him as he screams in frustration, the image uncomfortably overexposed with blown out highlights mirroring the bursting emotion he can no longer contain. Similarly, the camera remains fixed on Frank’s face as each of the verdicts is announced, rather than passing from one defendant to the next; tracking the continuing range of emotion he experiences after a long-fought battle is far more powerful. And yet, as we are reminded shortly afterward, this was a single battle for justice in an ongoing war.
When Oscar-winner Alicia Vikander was cast as the iconic Lara Craft, many hoped that Tomb Raider might finally crack the elusive high-quality videogame-to-film adaptation. Sadly, those hoping for more than a generic action movie will be disappointed by the results. Although it broadly follows the story beats of the 2013 videogame reboot, the script presents this as an uninspired origin story in which our orphaned heroine bizarrely spends the first half hour moping around London as a bike courier, presumably in an effort to make the heiress more relatable. Meanwhile it omits many of the scenes that demonstrate Lara’s transformation into a survivor. Vikander does what she can with the material, but apparently “this kind of Croft” is bland and largely passive until she returns to London in the film’s final few minutes. It is telling that even Walton Goggins struggles to make his villain in any way memorable. Ultimately the film is strongest in its fan-service moments, which is rarely a mark of quality.