Title: The First Grader
Director: Justin Chadwick
Starring: Naomie Harris, Oliver Litondo, Tony Kgoroge, Nick Reding, Vusi Kunene, John Sibi-Okumu
How will hardcore birthers (I’m looking in your direction Orly Taitz, though wincing to do so) read dark and sinister intent into the uplifting true story of The First Grader, given that it’s set in Kenya, contains the words “birth certificate” and even, in its closing, winkingly evokes the possibility of someone like Barack Obama, whose ancestors call the country home, rising to the presidency of the United States? Who knows, though I’m sure it may spawn a particularly warped conspiracy theory on some Internet message board somewhere. For the sane among us, however, the good news is that this solidly put together adult-education drama will be safely off the radars of most lunatic-fringe dwellers, arriving as it does in a low-key theatrical release from National Geographic Entertainment.
Having suffered mightily under the brutal colonial rule of the British, witnessed his family being slaughtered, and becoming a Mau Mau freedom fighter in the 1950s, now-84-year-old Kimani N’gan’ga Maruge (Oliver Litondo) nonetheless stands unbowed, and ready to tackle a new challenge. With the newly elected government having promised a free education for all, Maruge shows up at the primary school in a small, remote village deep in the Kenyan bush. Though turned away at first, Maruge is desperate to learn to finally read, and collects the necessary items (pencil and paper, a proper uniform) that he believes will gain him admittance.
Moved in equal measure by his passion and stubbornness, teacher Jane Obinchu (Naomie Harris) finally relents, and allows Margue to join her already overcrowded first grade class. There, he studies numbers and letters alongside the wide-eyed six-year-olds before news of his enrollment spreads, upsetting local parents and others concerned with the precious allocation of limited resources. After being reprimanded by her superiors and forced to turn Maruge away — funneling him to an adult education class that is a much longer commute, costs money and doesn’t suit his needs — Jane concocts what she thinks is a smart compromise solution, drafting Maruge as her special teacher’s aide. Before long, however, even this decision is deemed unacceptable. Several locals enact a campaign of nasty harassment and Jane is threatened with a work transfer, moving Maruge to try to fight on her behalf.
Working from a script by Emmy-winner Ann Peacock, director Justin Chadwick (The Other Boleyn Girl) intercuts the present day material with scenes showcasing Maruge’s detention camp mistreatment at the hands of both the British and, especially, their Kenyan loyalists. In doing so, the movie deftly captures the long-lingering shadows and ill effects of tribalism, when one’s ancestral sect is cause for modern day prejudice and distrust. Some of the parental disapproval is a bit less well delineated, in that it seems not ethnically based but more rooted in a strange, twisted desire to whitewash what is still relatively recent history.
Still, The First Grader is chiefly a drama of heartening, make-do cooperation and uplift — a movie about not just the illumination of education, but the power to bestow dignity that it also possesses. Harris and Litondo each deliver engaging, full-bodied performances, and Rob Hardy’s cinematography makes wonderful use of existent light and the natural Kenyan landscapes, creating a compelling physical tableau against which the human drama can more realistically unfold. The true story of The First Grader serves as an important reminder that education does not come by way of a piece of paper, nor is it a fixed-point destination. Instead, it’s a lifelong journey.
Written by: Brent Simon