Directed by Justin Chadwick (The Other Boleyn Girl), The First Grader tells of the true story of Kimani Ng'ang'a Maruge (Oliver Lotindo), a Kenyan man whose passionate plea to learn to read at a late stage in his life moved the head teacher of a remote mountain top primary school, Jane Obinchu (Naomie Harris), who accepted him as a pupil. With the chance for free education newly offered by the Kenyan government, Jane and Maruge face fierce opposition from local parents and officials who don't want to waste a precious school place on such an old man.
Throughout the film Maruge is plagued by memories of his time in Kenya in 1953, when he fought with the Mau Mau against the British colonial rule for the liberation of his country. It impacts upon Maruge in class, especially when he is reminded of his harrowing experiences in the British detention camps. In addition to telling the uplifting tale of Maruge’s desire to learn, The First Grader also addresses the seriousness of Kenya’s educational problems and their attempts to reform their system while also tying in the Government’s aversion to allowing Maruge to participate in the free education with tribal rivalries that have continued to outlive British occupation.
The film is narrated (but not in the traditional sense) by a radio DJ. This narration, which basically just reiterates what we have already seen, gives the extraordinary events an enthusiastic pizzazz. There is also some well-placed humour in the scenes with a band of jovial misfits, who on different occasions drive Jane and Maruge into Nairobi. What was astonishing to learn is that the children (and some play prominent roles in the film) had never seen a film or a television set prior to their involvement in the film.
Their youthful energy, their curiosity, and the way they seemed to naturally react to Naomie Harris and Oliver Lotindo, is a testament to Justin Chadwick and his crew for utilizing them so beautifully. The film’s most touching moments are those that capture the bond between Maruge and his junior classmates, who see him as a wise and inspiring figure. Oliver Lotindo gives a nice performance as a kind individual, who remains haunted by his past, but who has an opportunity to accomplish something special and help his country in his final years on Earth.
But, despite all this, there are evident flaws. Screenwriter Ann Peackock seems unsure whose story to tell. The flashbacks to the 1953, when Maruge witnesses his family murdered and experiences torture and imprisonment at the hands of the British, suggests it is Maruge’s tale. The suspense thriller angle, as Jane receives death threats in her attempts to convince her superiors (even the Department of Education Vice-Chairman) to reverse their decisions, suggests it is Jane’s tale. In the attempts to weave both tales, it does become a little clunky, and takes several unconvincing (and disappointing) shortcuts to resolve conflicts. Still, watching an 80 year-old man wave his cane at and scare off a bunch of punks who attack the school sure was a sight, if completely incredible.
The First Grader is also manipulative at times. Sure, it was horrible what happened to Maruge, but because the events are his memories, we aren’t really informed about anything but the courage and heroism of the Mau Mau. It is raised at one point that the Mau Mau were also responsible for killing members of rival Kenyan tribes that surrendered to the British. We aren’t given anything to consider about Jane either. I am assuming, because Naomie Harris is British, that her character had one British parent and one Kenyan. How she felt about the events from the past might have given the film more of an edge, rather than her immediately sympathizing with Maruge and in extension threatening her career to help him.
The First Grader pays tribute to Maruge (who appears in the Guinness Book of World Records for his feat), a man who was an inspiring figure for his nation. It’s an appealing story, and one can overlook the familiar flaws in the storytelling and the disappointing conclusion – it’s all rounded up neatly and quickly - because Chadwick has captured a rarely-seen country and it’s people and has tackled an important and affecting period of political struggle and violence with the very best intentions. That’s commendable enough for me. Working relatively effectively as a historical tragedy and a heartwarming, feel-good drama, The First Grader is worth a look, though it’s release will likely be limited.
My Rating: ★★★ (C+)