The true-life drama “The First Grader” could have easily veered into being another patronizing, Western-made treatment of Africans in the “bravely suffering” mold but, thanks to Ann Peacock’s focused screenplay and Justin Chadwick’s sensitive direction, the movie’s achieves a poignant, humanist sincerity. The Kenyan government’s ambitious 2003 initiative guaranteeing free primary school education to all its citizens is this story’s catalyst.
The goal of the government initiative, of course, was to give the nation’s poorer children the head-start advantage of reading and writing skills. But when the illiterate 84-year-old Kimani Ng’ang’a Maruge shows up for his free education, he throws everyone – from bureaucrats and administrators to one local schoolteacher – completely off guard.
Hailing from the fiercely resilient Mau Mau tribe and a veteran of Kenya’s anti-colonial uprisings against the British in the 1950’s, Maruge wants to claim for himself a piece of the freedom he fought for long ago. Maruge’s enrollment angers parents believing that the old man has usurped classroom space that could’ve gone to another child in their small mountaintop community. But more insidious is the resentment that the news sparks among those still harboring generations-old inter-tribal grudges and the political opportunism that Maruge’s publicity throws open for corrupt officials.
Fending themselves against these waves of controversy and manipulation are the film’s two central figures: Maruge himself (Oliver Litondo) and his devoted young teacher Jane (Naomie Harris), both determinedly pressing on in the former’s personal crusade. The school superintendent Kipruto (Vusi Kunene) does his best to upset Jane’s campaign to educate the old man, even transferring her to a far-away district – a gambit soundly thwarted by the children themselves in a moving, amusing bit of stubborn, grassroots resistance.
Even decades removed from his years fighting the British and serving time in brutal prisoner-of-war camps, Maruge still finds himself haunted by memories of torture and of the raid on his village in which the British killed his family. The brutality of the torture chambers, merciless British reprisal and his still-resonant grief strike a powerful chord in images and sequences that convey the shattering violence and heartbreak of Maruge’s past without becoming gratuitous. (Warning to parents, however: This is not a child-friendly film).
When the politics and publicity of his situation get out of hand, Maruge himself becomes Jane and his school’s fiercest defender. Indeed, for his classmates – all seven or eight decades younger than him – Maruge becomes the sage chronicler of their national history, instilling them with the value of freedom. Balancing the nurturing charm of a small-town teacher and the flinty courage of a principled advocate, Harris embodies her role convincingly. As Maruge, Litondo – in his first lead role – projects the conviction, dignity and the weary-eyed wisdom befitting the veteran freedom fighter. Given the low profile of the film, sadly, it’s unlikely (though not impossible) that “The First Grader” will generate for Litondo the publicity or the awards buzz necessary come Oscar season. But never mind that — just know that his is the performance of a lifetime.
Directed by: Justin Chadwick
Written by: Ann Peacock
Starring: Oliver Litondo, Naomie Harris, Vusi Kunene, Tony Kgoroge, Israel Makoe