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Movie Review: The First Grader

A classroom in the mountains of Kenya offers a history lesson and more

Oliver Litondo and Naomie Harris dance with children in The First Grader

Oliver Litondo and Naomie Harris dance with children in The First Grader. — Kerry Brown/National Geographic Entertainment

Directed by Justin Chadwick
Rated PG-13
Runtime: 103 mins.

En español  |  You’re never too old to learn. That simple message infuses The First Grader, though the film tells a sophisticated, multilayered story. Viewers of this dramatization of a real-life tale witness a bloody chapter in African history and receive a lesson on the long-lasting effects of tribalism and prejudice. They learn, in the words of one of the characters, that "the past is always present," and that education is key to helping us improve upon what’s come before. The First Grader is additionally a visual and musical adventure: It was shot in the remote mountains of Kenya, and the filmmakers cast local children — many of whom had never seen a camera, much less been filmed by one — and utilized native dialects and music to lend an authenticity to the material.

The movie has its roots in a Los Angeles Times article about an 84-year-old Kenyan farmer named Kimani N’gan’ga Maruge. In flashback, we see that Maruge was a member of the Mau Mau, an anti-colonial group that rebelled against the British rule of Kenya in the 1950s. His wife and two young children were brutally murdered because of his Mau Mau allegiance, and Maruge spent nearly a decade being tortured in British-run prison camps until Kenya finally gained independence. So it is that in 2002, when the Kenyan government announces free primary education for all, Maruge, now aged, limping, and hard-of-hearing (a result of beatings he received in the camps), slogs across the bush to land a spot at a local school, among 5-, 6- and 7-year-olds. He feels the government owes him an education, and he also wants to learn to read a letter that has come to him from the Kenyan president, offering reparations for his sacrifice on behalf of the country.

Politics, old resentments and the corrupting influence of the media spotlight make Maruge’s presence at this rural school problematic, to say the least. And therein lie the subtleties of the story.

Determined to cast a Kenyan as Maruge, director Justin Chadwick (The Other Boleyn Girl) chose Oliver Litondo, a former Kenyan TV news anchorman. He brings a heartbreaking passion to the role. The teacher who allows Maruge into the school is played appealingly by the British actress Naomie Harris, but the major flaw in the film is that we never get to really understand her motivations. Why does she put so much on the line for Maruge, and what drives her to be a good teacher for her 200 other young students?

That said, it’s uplifting to know that moviemakers wanted to tell the story of an 84-year-old man at all, and director Chadwick manages to share Maruge’s inspirational tale without being heavy-handed. Thanks to that, we’ll all carry the message of this film for a long time.

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