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Review by Rich Cline | MUST SEE
dir Steve McQueen
scr Alastair Siddons, Steve McQueen
prd Anita Overland, Michael Elliott
with Kenyah Sandy, Sharlene Whyte, Daniel Francis, Tamara Lawrance, Naomi Ackie, Josette Simon, Jade Anouka, Kate Dickie, Adrian Rawlins, Stewart Wright, Aiyana Goodfellow, Ryan Masher
release UK 13.Dec.20,
20/UK BBC 1h03
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A true story that highlights yet another shocking layer of racism woven into British society, this film explores a situation in which children were segregated into under-achieving schools because of their race. Letting the narrative unfold in a clear-eyed, straightforward way, Steve McQueen gets under the skin of its pre-teen protagonist, making the issue intensely personal. This is a fierce, important little film that leaves us intensely moved.
In North London, 12-year-old Kingsley (Sandy) is obsessed with astronauts and space, while his big sister Stephanie (Lawrance) wants to work in fashion. When Kingsley is seen to be disruptive in class, he's transferred to an inferior school for kids with "special needs". But this is being done systematically to children from non-white backgrounds. His parents Agnes and Esmond (Whyte and Francis) are too busy working to fully notice what's happening, but family friend Lydia (Simon) explains that she and psychologist Hazel (Ackie) are mobilising action to get children like Kingsley back into proper schools.
It's shocking to watch teachers deliberately steal Kingsley's future. This new school is so appalling that it's hard to believe anyone could ever treat children like this, but up to the early 1970s Britain's educational system labelled Black young people as "educationally subnormal", dumping them into what's little more than babysitting alongside seriously disabled children. McQueen presents this with unblinking honesty as an almost passive evil, catching telling details that reveal the ignored imaginative yearnings of these cruelly sidelined young people.
Sandy is a remarkable young actor, able to express his thoughts with minimal effort. His intelligence lights up the screen, so we vividly feel his confusion and frustration at what's happened to him, and his helplessness in the face of an immovable system. Whyte is magnificent as a woman whose eyes are opened, and now she's willing to fight to get answers. She even takes on Francis' Esmond, who struggles to see beyond his own low expectations. Simon and Ackie are also terrific as strong, well-educated warriors for justice.
There's a stunning extended scene at about the midpoint when a woolly teacher (Wright) sings House of the Rising Sun as a lesson to a classroom of bored students. McQueen quietly invokes steely irony in scenes like this, drawing parallels to today's generations of children who have merely been plopped in front of a screen. And it's clear that caring family members like Agnes and Stephanie are the key to building a healthy society. Watching Kingsley discover himself is flat-out exhilarating.
Nb. This film is part of McQueen's five-film series Small Axe, exploring Britain's black culture. It's named after the Bob Marley song, based on an African proverb about how people working together can take down a big tree.
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© 2020 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall
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