Historical

12 Years a Slave

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12 Years a Slave is a masterpiece, pure and simple. The film of the decade. And it’s also one of the most difficult and frightening films you’ll ever see. Difficult and frightening because of the unpleasant truths it stirs up about human nature and the realization of just how psychopathic the institution of slavery was and always will be.

The fact that America once had an entire economy built on the dehumanization of an entire race by another, an economic system that justified–even demanded–the enslavement of blacks in order for the white ruling class of the South to prosper is a larger truth the film prompts us to reflect on while we watch, in horror, at the plight of Solomon Northup, the film’s protagonist, kidnapped and enslaved in mid-19th century America. Northup not only bears punishing torture and deprivation, he also observes the heart-rending experiences of fellow slaves, whether separated from children or beaten to within an inch of their lives. There is also psychological brutality, an all-pervading fear of the lash, the knife, of being lynched, of betrayal should Solomon even think of escape or confide the truth behind his enslavement to anyone. For twelve years, Northup bides his time, perseveres, swallows his pride and his dignity, if only to survive, waiting for the crucial window of opportunity to assert his freedom.

Adapted from Northup’s remarkable 1853 memoir, screenwriter John Ridley traces the events that led Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) from being a free man, a husband and father in 1840s New York into a nightmarish odyssey through the slave trafficking network that fed the South with northern blacks and the years of hardship that follow. Duped by two conmen into traveling to the nation’s capitol, Northup suddenly finds himself captured by slave traders. Shocked and in disbelief, he joins the ranks of fellow slaves, among whom is Eliza–a mother with two children in tow–as they are transported to the New Orleans slave market. The horrors really kick in from this point on as, first, we watch as the slave trader (Paul Giamatti) separates Eliza  from her children, leaving the mother a heartbroken and inconsolable wreck for the rest of her life.

Northup’s journey takes him to the plantation of a relatively kind and genteel landowner named Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). But Ford’s mild nature isn’t mirrored by his venomous white overseer (Paul Dano), who demeans and terrorizes Northup at every step out of jealousy and spite, noting Northup’s intelligence and resourcefulness. Fearing for his slave’s safety, Ford sells Northup to the planter Epps (Michael Fassbender), inadvertently throwing him out of the frying pan and into the fire. For Epps is a demon, every bit as vile and villainous as Ralph Fiennes’ Amon Goeth in Schindler’s List; he delights in psychologically and physically abusing his slaves. Despite his hatefulness, he harbors a perverse love for one of his slaves, Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o)–similar to Goeth’s fixation on his Jewish prisoner/housekeeper–and abuses her sexually.

It’s heart-rending to see Patsey’s suffering–at one point, she even implores Northup to kill her–and we wonder, as we do throughout this extraordinary film, how common such suffering and sorrow was among slaves during this time. We become aware of this vast, anonymous pain crying out from behind the walls of time and selective history. And Eliza and Patsey become two women who represent the voices of millions of forgotten black women of this era.

No other film to my mind depicts slavery–and the culture and system that nurtured it–with the direct and unapologetic starkness of 12 Years a Slave. But within that starkness, there’s humanity and love–the qualities that bind humanity to art and humans to each other. Credit for this bold and purposeful project goes to director Steve McQueen and his exceptional cast. McQueen employs, on the one hand, a shrewd sense of craftsmanship, rife with drama, suspense and heartbreak to keep us rooted. Overlaying that is a serene artfulness evident in imagery of plantations and Southern landscapes that are evocative of Winslow Homer (see The Cotton Pickers, 1876, and Veteran in a New Field, 1865), courtesy of master cinematographer Sean Bobbit. The film has the painterly sensibilities that reminded me of Terrence Malick and Julian Schnabel. But a more unexpected filmmaker that came to mind was David Lynch, particularly his The Elephant Man, which blended a strong, stark visual style to depict an environment of pervasive cruelty.  There is a similar push-pull at work in 12 Years a Slave, with its hallucinatory visual and dramatic power at odds with the repulsive behavior on display.

Its brilliant aesthetic aside, this film would not be the masterpiece it is without this cast. Bold, fearless and commanding, Ejiofor is indelible as Northup. We mourn his suffering as we wait for him to make his next move, resolute in the idea of securing freedom. Surrounding him are brilliant performances from those whose characters personify evil, like Dano, Giamatti and, particularly, Paulson as Epps’s hateful and vindictive wife. Trust me, this woman will live on as one of the screen’s great villains. The chameleon Fassbender continues his run as one of the screen’s most compelling stars, playing the conflicted and fascinating Epps; few actors can make evil this watchable (only Fiennes, see above). Most moving is Nyong’o as the resilient Patsey, a woman whose spirit we watch degrade in the course of the film and whose friendship with Northup burns like a few precious flakes of ember in the cold night of the film’s suffering.

There’s a lot you’ll have to confront within yourself while watching this film, but no other movie this year will connect you more deeply with your own humanity. It’s for these reasons and so many more that 12 Years a Slave must be witnessed. Once you do witness it, you’ll never want to again. No matter, though, because its imagery, its message, its savagery will have claimed a part of your soul forever. You will never be the same again.

Grade: A

Directed by: Steve McQueen
Written by: John Ridley
Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong’o, Michael Fassbender, Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano, Sarah Paulson, Brad Pitt

The Way Back

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One of the most misunderstood and underrated films of the past couple of years has been The Way Back by Peter Weir. Before it came out, I remember reading an article lamenting how the Hollywood distribution landscape had changed so much over the previous decade that Weir — an Oscar nominated and widely admired filmmaker — could no longer get studio backing and distribution for his latest effort. Just seven years earlier, Twentieth Century Fox put its weight behind the production and distribution of Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003), which went on to land 10 Academy Award nominations (including two for Weir). But, by the time of The Way Back, Weir’s financiers and distributors consisted of a network of fairly small companies geared for the art-house market. Not that the look and quality of The Way Back suffers, but it’s sad all the same because the absence of heavyweight companies with deep pockets as well as far-reaching distribution and marketing muscle could really have helped this ambitious and deserving film reach a wider audience. As it stands, Weir and his cinema — once A-list sure bets — risk becoming overshadowed by the studios’ desire to back only tentpole franchises engineered for maximum box office.

The Way Back follows a group of prison-camp escapees during WWII as they trek the thousands of miles from Siberia to safe asylum in British-occupied India. This is not an action or a suspense film, though Wier fashions elements of both into his tale. This is not a character study, particularly, since none of the characters — save that of Janusz, a political prisoner played by Jim Sturgess — really assumes fully rounded dimensions. There are two others, a cutthroat ex-criminal played by Colin Farrell and an enigmatic American played by Ed Harris who command our attention with their hard-edged personalities, their jaded world views. Gradually, through their cooperation and grit, we become fond of them, as we do the rest in the group because of their pure and enduring will to live. For the most part, The Way Back is a quiet and reflective experience in which its characters — and we, the audience — weigh constantly whether it isn’t better to just lie down and die. But always these men — and the one young Polish woman who joins them, played by Saoirse Ronan — push onwards, haggard, parched, famished, but driven toward life, escape, a more hopeful future.

Weir’s drama is decidedly low-key and exists largely as one between the individual and the passing landscape. The men distract themselves with conversations about chicken recipes as they subsist on tree bark, trudge on on swollen feet wrapped in rags, and dream of the next sip of water or a bit of real food. The Way Back is like a prison film and a prison escape film in one, because upon escaping the real prison, the group finds itself in another one, extending 4000 miles from end to end. They drop like flies as they go, one by one, their graves indicated by the markers like bread crumbs along the way. And there are surprising decisions too as, for instance, when Farrell’s character realizes that Mother Russia is the only home for him, for better or worse. His fate is a haunting one, visualized in the image of a lone man against the rugged, unforgiving starkness of his homeland, and we can’t help but wonder what lies ahead for him. Whether The Way Back is fiction or not isn’t really important (there are assertions that the story, despite its claim as being based-on-fact, is all fabrication). There are greater concerns in the film, especially the running desire for redemption that inspires Janusz. Even after his betrayal, the man isn’t angry at his wife, he understands the duress under which she had to give him up. His goal now is to tell her he forgives her. Harris’s story too is anchored by the guilt he feels towards his child.

Weir maintains a sure, subtle hand throughout. His one major story flaw is that he doesn’t allow for enough buildup at the prison camp before the men stage their breakout. There isn’t enough of a sense of last-straw desperation or, for that matter, any sense of coordinated planning, things that would’ve added suspense to the breakout once it did happen. As it is, the breakout comes abruptly, too soon, and seems too easy, amounting only to a bunch of men running wildly through the woods as dogs and soldiers pursue. They have only to run hard enough and long enough to secure their chance at survival. Still, in the passages that follow, Weir offers a solid, resonant meditation on survival, on hope, on the value of life in the face of implacable hostility, portrayed memorably by an excellent cast and Weir’s vast, brutal, awe-inspiring landscapes.

Grade: B+

Directed by: Peter Weir
Written by: Keith R. Clarke, Peter Weir
Cast: Jim Sturgess, Ed Harris, Saoirse Ronan, Mark Strong, Colin Farrell

Hugo

There are two intertwined stories in Hugo, Martin Scorsese’s inaugural foray into family-friendly cinema. The first — and less interesting — story is about an orphaned boy who lives in a Paris railway station in the 1930s, looking after the station’s clocks and eluding the station inspector at every turn. The second — and far more compelling — story revolves around the French cinema pioneer, Georges Méliès, living in broken-hearted obscurity and running a toy concession at that same railway station, and how he finds himself rediscovered and redeemed by a young film scholar (with the aid of the above orphan). Whenever the focus of Hugo is on Méliès, Scorsese finds his footing, the source of his passion for this material, namely the magic, heritage and history of early cinema. The Méliès story gives Scorsese an expansive avenue to wax lyrical on his affection for the magic of movies, to share with his audience his own captivation with the medium. In that sense, Hugo may be the most soulful, most personal fiction film in his career.

What links the young boy, Hugo (Asa Butterfield) to Méliès (played with world-class gusto by Ben Kingsley) is a broken-down mechanical toy — an automaton — that the filmmaker had fashioned decades earlier and gave away to collect dust in a museum. Hugo now tends to the automaton at the station, determined to carry on his late father’s wishes to repair and rebuild it. As Hugo and Méliès strike a bond with each other, the resurrection of the automaton is but one of many of the film’s resurrections: Méliès’ of course along with Hugo’s resurrection from aimless, fatherless oblivion into a future filled with purpose and the film world’s own resurrection of its own heritage.

Where Scorsese stumbles is in telling Hugo’s story, which finds the director flat-footed and at a loss to capture the pace, wit and energy of a children’s fantasy film. Scorsese has always been more at home in studies of behavior, mood and milieu. As a result, performances from child actors Butterfield and Chloë Grace Moretz — who plays Isabelle, Méliès’ goddaughter and Hugo’s spunky sidekick — have a charmless, obligatory feel about them. These are one-note performances as is a similarly troublesome turn by Sacha Baron Cohen, playing the station inspector as a queasy mishmash of Borat and Inspector Clouseau. While Cohen and Emily Mortimer, as flower vendor Lisette, have a couple of cute and amusing scenes, Cohen’s schtick never coheres into a fully realized character and in sync with this material.

Fortunately for Hugo, Scorsese and his editor Thelma Schoonmaker keep Cohen’s scenes tolerably trimmed. The filmmakers aren’t quite as shrewd with the children’s scenes, which often feel protracted and not half as interesting as Scorsese believes they are. Scenes between Hugo and Isabelle benefit from Hugo’s unsparing attention to period detail, but the direction belabors each and every dramatic beat with little regard for pacing, freshness and energy. This is one of the shortfalls in Scorsese’s approach to his material: He has never been much of a storyteller so much as an uncanny capturer of moments and details. While his gifts serve biographies and crime sagas admirably, they become hindrances to the needs of this genre, this material.

But when the movie lands in Kingsley’s hands, Hugo becomes a thing of beauty and profoundness. Méliès allows Scorsese to transport himself and his audience to the halcyon days of the film pioneer’s career, when he perfected early special-effects techniques via hundreds of fantasy and adventure short films. Hugo hits its stride (and Scorsese finds his groove) when it ventures into Méliès’ biography — sequences bursting with visual splendor and emotional beauty. When a young film scholar, Rene Tabard (played delightfully by Michael Stuhlberg), chances on Hugo and Isabelle as they thumb through pages of his film-history tome, we feel that Scorsese has found filmic extensions of his cinema-love in both Hugo, the fledgling cinephile, and Tabard, the seasoned film enthusiast, through whom the director can give voice to the issue of film preservation (the lack of which destroyed much of Méliès’ cinematic output). When Scorsese finds opportunities to lavish attention on Méliès and on early film history, Hugo becomes something special, it finds its purpose in the world, right along with its own characters.

Grade: B+

Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Written by: John Logan
Cast: Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen, Asa Butterfield, Chloë Grace Moretz, Michael Stuhlbarg, Ray Winstone, Emily Mortimer, Christopher Lee, Jude Law, Richard Griffiths, Helen McCory

The Motorcycle Diaries

Brazilian filmmaker Walter Salles’s “The Motorcycle Diaries” is about the eight adventurous months that Ernesto “Che” Guevara and his lifelong friend, Alberto Granado, spent traversing South America in 1952. Adapted by playwright José Rivera from both Guevara and Granado’s memoirs, the movie charts their journey and, as it does, tries to use its awe-inspiring physicality to mirror young Guevara’s inner political awakening. That the movie is about one of today’s most revered revolutionary icons proves to be both its saving grace as well as its unmanageable burden, owing to its script’s inherent weaknesses.

Salles starts his story off in Buenos Aires as Guevara (Gael García Bernal), a bright-eyed 23-year-old medical student, bids goodbye to his family and climbs onto a ramshackle motorbike with Granado (Rodrigo de la Serna), a 29-year-old biochemist. Both are giddy with wanderlust, hungry for experience. Being free-spirited idealists, the young doctors make for a leper colony in the Amazon where they wish to volunteer their services. Along the way, the horny Granado cavorts with local girls, Guevara nurses his aching love for the daughter of an aristocratic landowner, but, most of all, they observe, with horror, the social injustice and poverty that pervades their continent.

Sadly, “Diaries” does little to vindicate the legacy of Guevara, who, since his death, has largely become an abstraction, a pop commodity. As an examination of the forces that shape a man’s destiny, the movie is unconvincing. Rivera’s coming-of-age script takes on a by-the-numbers feel which Salles handles with gracelessly staccato-like pacing, if only to race over the movie’s insubstantial surfaces. As a result, we know too little about the sensitive young Guevara at the movie’s outset, apart from his privileged family life, to truly feel for what he becomes—and what he’s on his way to becoming—at the movie’s end. Remove the ennobling specter of Guevara from “Diaries,” and you can hear its script’s creaky legs giving way.

What does prop the movie up are its intimate moments, those in which Guevara converses with the poor with the urgency of a social worker. Here, Salles adopts a documentary-like virtuosity, a wonderfully employed device, especially as Salles contrasts it with the more epic grandeur of “Diaries’” open spaces. Indeed, as the adventurers wend their way through South America’s richly varied terrain, the movie becomes a soul-stirring paean to the continent’s beauty. Cinematographer Eric Gautier and Production Designer Carlos Conti masterfully evoke the textures and colors of early ’50s Latin American culture, creating images that move to the indigenous rhythms of Gustavo Santaolalla’s lively music. Garcia Bernal and de la Serna offer heartfelt, charismatic performances which, combined with Salles’s poetry of majestic landscapes and poverty-worn faces, give “Diaries” its simple, enduring appeal.

Grade: B

Directed by: Walter Salles
Written by: Jose Rivera
Cast: Gael García Bernal, Rodrigo De la Serna, Mercedes Morán, Jean Pierre Noher, Lucas Oro

Girl With a Pearl Earring

A Vermeer is truly dazzling. On the surface, we marvel at the artist’s gift for capturing natural light and real-world resplendence, the minutiae of physical detail that point to and deepen our understanding of the paintings’ subjects. His subjects are mostly women, usually alone—a maidservant or a noblewoman—engrossed in a private, ordinary moment, reading a love letter or performing a household chore. It is of these candid moments, of what they reveal of class, lifestyle, and, most subtly, of the personal drama unfolding in his protagonists’ lives, lying just beneath his glorious surfaces, that Vermeer is the peerless master.

“Girl With a Pearl Earring,” directed by Peter Webber and adapted by Olivia Hetreed from Tracy Chevalier’s novel, is named after one of Vermeer’s paintings. “Girl” speculates on the identity of the painting’s subject—a somber but alluring young woman who stares back at us forlornly—and the events surrounding her posing for Vermeer. “Girl” wants to emulate the painter’s subtle aesthetic as it fashions a story of domestic and erotic intrigue. Webber gets his surfaces brilliantly right, but, whereas the merest gestures and looks in a Vermeer are so carefully chosen that they can reveal oceans of insight, “Girl” leaves us to splash about in a murky puddle of underdeveloped scenes. I am not trying to hold Webber to Vermeer’s standard, just suggesting that the director falteringly aspires to a style and dramaturgy that few artists of any discipline can pull off.

By virtue of her pale, saturnine face, Scarlet Johansson looks born to play Griet, the peasant girl-turned-maidservant who becomes Vermeer’s muse. Johansson is “Girl’s” trump card; any single shot of her looks miraculously like one of Vermeer’s own women has stepped off the canvas and onto a movie screen. Eduardo Serra’s masterful cinematography and Ben van Os’ production design richly and uncannily evoke the color palette and mood of Vermeer’s world.

When Griet, a pauper’s daughter, takes a job in Vermeer’s household, she sets off a chain of jealousy, greed and lust that rattles everybody around her and inspires one of the artist’s most well-known works. This is potentially riveting material, but Webber’s movie never quite overcomes the well-trodden trope and cliché, leaving two wonderful actors, Colin Firth and Tom Wilkinson, in desperately shallow waters. As Vermeer, for instance, Firth is just another taciturn, brooding artist and, as his saucy patron, Wilkinson founders as your standard dirty-old-man with an eye for young housemaids. Johansson, with her sensual, expressive face, surpasses the material best—as a girl on the brink of sexual awakening, she delicately conveys vulnerability and sensuality at once.

To be fair, the details of Vermeer’s life are sketchy. But, rather than flesh out the lack of historical fact with tantalizing fabulation (this is fiction, after all), Webber sticks fussily to his story’s bare skeleton. “Girl” gives us a vividly painted world but only patchily drawn characters — in that sense, it gets Vermeer only half right.

Grade: C+

Directed by: Peter Webber
Written by: Tracy Chevalier
Cast: Colin Firth, Scarlett Johansson, Tom Wilkinson, Cillian Murphy, Alakina Mann

Outside the Law (Hors-la-loi)

French-Algerian filmmaker Rachid Bouchareb’s “Outside the Law” has all makings of an epic saga. His story charts the big, transformative beats of three main characters against the backdrop of two nations’ shifting political fortunes across nearly 40 years of mid-20th Century history. Briskly paced and tautly acted, “Outside the Law” also stubbornly remains a film of surfaces: Its characters are alive with passion and purpose, but the script and direction lack the necessary facility for fleshing out complex, conflicted human beings.

Aiming to examine the relationships of three Algerian brothers between the 1920s and the early 1960s when Algeria won its independence from France, the project demands keen dramatic and humanist sensibilities. But, as much as we grow to understand them, the characters in Bouchareb’s tale remain static, just cardboard stand-ins for Big Ideas – Sacrifice, Freedom, Ambition – and never appeal to us as organic, sympathetic creations.

In 1920s Algeria, three sons, Saïd, Messaoud and Abdelkader find that French colonial authorities have uprooted them and their parents from their ancestral home. Fast forward twenty years, and we see that Abdelkader (Sami Bouajila) is an agitator for Algerian independence, participating in nationalist demonstrations. The younger Saïd, however, runs a boxing racket, managing scrappy street fighters and taking bets. After French police open-fire on a massive demonstration, Abdelkader gets hauled off to French prison along with scores of fellow revolutionists. Fast forward another 8 years and we find Messaoud (Roschdy Zem) fighting in Indochina as a French Army soldier while Abdelkader continues to whet his political anger behind bars. Saïd and his long-suffering mother (Chafia Boudraa) escape Algeria, finding shelter in a shantytown with other Algerian refugees outside Paris. Here, Saïd starts off as a small-time pimp before graduating to a more deluxe gangster lifestyle as a cabaret owner.

“Outside the Law’s” action kicks into gear once Messaoud returns from war and he teams up with the now-released Abdelkader in backing a militant-nationalist outfit. Freedom for Algeria is a sacred goal for Abdelkader, one for which he and those closest to him must be willing to sacrifice everything: He struggles to resist returning the affections of a lovely French sympathizer (Sabrina Seyvesou), and he throws a wrench in Saïd’s dream of managing a champion boxer. And, as much he vowed never to kill again, the former soldier Massaoud turns essentially into Abdlekader’s henchman, guilt-ridden and distant from his new wife and son.

The film’s last third settles into a cat-and-mouse game as French Army investigator, Faivre (Bernard Blancan), leads a crack team to hunt down Abdelkader and his co-conspirators. Having thus far failed to find his dramatic footing, Bouchareb at last finds what he wants to make: A film of chases, assassinations and machine-gun battles, a kind of politicized gangster chronicle. Had “Outside the Law” succeeded in its earlier, more difficult passages as an interpersonal drama about compromised dreams, this section might’ve felt profound, especially as it would’ve underscored the ironies and tragic costs of freedom and nationhood.

But where’s the heartbreak when no one deviates from their pre-set programming? Abdelkader, Messaoud and Saïd are one-way characters, their cross-purposes and conflicting motives too often feel repetitive. Apart from one wonderful scene in which Abdelkader and Messaoud joke about the dance-ability of American pop music, the brothers’ relationships never feel familiar, nuanced, but humorless, almost robotic. Their mother too is merely a clench-jawed emblem of perennial sacrifice. Bouchareb marks time skimming the surfaces of his characters’ souls before he give himself free rein to let the bullets fly.

Grade: B

Directed by: Rachid Bouchareb
Written by: Rachid Bouchareb
Cast: Jamel Debbouze, Roschdy Zem, Sami Bouajila, Bernard Blancan, Sabrina Seyvesou, Samir Guesmi, Thibault de Montalembert

The First Grader

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.

Grade: B+

Directed by: Justin Chadwick
Written by: Ann Peacock
Starring: Oliver Litondo, Naomie Harris, Vusi Kunene, Tony Kgoroge, Israel Makoe