The Radio Times logo

Steve McQueen opens up about being dyslexic and his own “painful” journey ahead of Subnormal: A British Scandal

Steve McQueen says his life wouldn't have been what it is today without the work of the Black Parents Association.

Steve McQueen
Getty Images
Published: Thursday, 13th May 2021 at 7:00 pm

Steve McQueen has opened up about a personal battle ahead of his latest BBC documentary, Subnormal: A British Scandal.


The one-off film, which airs on May 20th, will explore one of the biggest scandals in the history of British education, looking at how Black children in the 60s and 70s were sent to "educationally subnormal" schools.

McQueen has dyslexia, and hid it for years out of shame.

Speaking to press, including, at a BFI at Home discussion, the director opened up about his own experience at school, admitting he wouldn't be where he is today without the help of the Black Parents Association.

"I'm sort of mumbling and stuttering now because it was very painful for me. To bring this story up even in [Small Axe's] Education, in some way there was a bit of a shaming and deep shame in what happened to me at school. I know that my future wouldn't have been what it is today," he said.

"My presence wouldn't be what it is today if it hadn't been for the Black Parents Association, and what they did to change the law and to demolish educationally subnormal schools because that would have been my path and the Kingsley character in Education would have been me."

Gus John, activist and academic, appearing in the BBC documentary Subnormal: A British Scandal BBC

McQueen - who is one of the executive producers on Subnormal, alongside Rogan Productions and Turbine Studios - says his disability could have easily led to him being marginalised at school.

"I was one of those that had dyslexia. So, for me it was a slow process. It wasn't about intelligence, it was about dyslexia, but that can be easily have been excused and put into that situation," he said.

Thankfully, he was able to overcome this battle due to changes in the law, saying: "But I can say that because of the possibilities that I had, that made my life possible and others possible others, not just Black people's lives - white people, Asian people, all people's lives."

Sadly, the same cannot be said for some of the contributors in Subnormal, who speak candidly about their experiences of being sent to an "educationally subnormal" school and the impact it had on the rest of their lives.

"It just hurts because I know what could have happened to me, and I know what happened to people that I knew at school and where they are now," McQueen continued.

Subnormal: A British Scandal BBC

The director says the fear of being pushed out and sent to an "educationally subnormal" school resulted in many Black children turning to sports or entertainment - something he himself considered in a bid to be "respected" and receive "attention".

He explained: "I know first-hand that what happened was when a certain kind of currency came into effect of being tough. I thought I could fight, because your educational intelligence is not being given a chance, so maybe my physicality can. That's what people turn to. I saw a lot of beautiful, beautiful Black boys and Black children turn into something else which they were not, but that was the only space where they got respect or they got a certain kind of currency. So that breaks my heart when I saw a lot of beautiful Black children turn into something else because that's the only space where they got respect or they got a certain kind of currency."

McQueen hopes Subnormal: A British Scandal will "illuminate" the issues raised in the Small Axe Education episode, while revealing the progress within the educational system.

He said: "These Black people made my liberty, so I needed to find out exactly what what was going on at that time and show to the world what was happening. It's one of those things which even affect me today, but it's one of those things which is painful but need be dredged up to see how far we've come."


Subnormal: A British Scandal airs on BBC One on Thursday, 20th May at 9pm. See what else is on with our TV Guide. Also visit our dedicated Documentaries hub for more news.


Sponsored content