The First Grader
Directed by Justin Chadwick
Starring Oliver Litondo, Naomie Harris, Tony Kgoroge, Vusi Kunene
National Geographic Entertainment
Originally Released: September 4, 2010
The First Grader is one of those rare dramas that is such enthralling viewing; you cannot turn away from the screen. The performances in this movie are well above standards and expectations, with some moving moments sure to bring some viewers to tears. Coupled with some extraordinary cinematography and an exceptional score, The First Grader is a film based on true events that is not to be missed.
In 2003, the People’s Republic of Kenya officially announced that they were introducing free primary education (what Americans refer to as Elementary School) across the country. The result saw a massive increase in enrollment and attendance (Wikipedia cites this as high as 70%), ushering forth a new era of potential for the children of the country.
On the announcement of the news, Kimani Ng’ang’a Maruge (played by Oliver Litondo in the movie) decides to take on the government’s offer of free education, despite his age of 84 years. His argument is that the politicians announced free education for ALL, without specifying it being just for children. After demonstrating his persistence, teacher Jane Obinchu (portrayed by Naomie Harris) relents with admiration and takes Kimani Maruge in as her pupil, making him the holder of the Guinness World Record for the oldest primary school student in the world.
This premise is but just the overlay of a deep and rich tale. Beneath it lies a fertile narrative detailing a darker side of Kenyan history, in flashback sequences highlighting Maruge’s role in the Mau Mau Uprising during the 1950s, and his subsequent incarceration and torture at the hands of the British and the loyalists.
The Mau Mau Uprising ought to really be called Kenya’s war for independence in a lot of ways. Beginning in the early Fifties, the rebellion against the oppressive nature of traditional British colonialism was a quest for freedom. And even though the British and the Loyalists are portrayed in this movie as remorseless murderers that could be construed as war criminals, the writers do hasten to add that the Mau Mau also had blood on their hands from the engagements as well.
In spite of this, the focus in the movie is on our protagonist Maruge, and is principally told from his perspective. While we learn of his quest to learn to read, so that he may be able to read an important letter sent to him; we also learn of his efforts as a freedom fighter among the Mau Mau and the ensuing abuse and torture he endured at the hands of the British during his imprisonment for being among the rebellion. Central to this focus is the loss of his wife and children, a motif returned to frequently in the film that serves as a moral grounding for the development of the plot – a highlight that, while tragic, makes the viewer care deeply for the main character.
The hooded and cloaked informants, comprised of Kalenjin Loyalists, during the flashback scenes of the colonial wars evoke a demonic image; almost a reverse, though not so different, KKK impression – a discriminatory representation of everything immoral with the aggressive colonialism of the British Empire. As the Loyalists serving the British take children from mothers’ arms and drag the Mau Mau rebels into the streets, it’s haunting and chilling, and provides a sobering position for the basis and background of our main character. There are several torture sequences in the movie, but during one of these scenes, a sharpened pencil is used that is powerful and physically repulsive, yet crucial for establishing Maruge’s history – and serves as a crucial part of the overall plot, as well as the relational development between numerous characters.
Correspondingly strong throughout The First Grader is the sentiment that society must move forward, but should never forget the past. Although Kenya achieved independence from 1963, and claims were made that the days of tribalism were gone – as highlighted in this movie, the memories of tribalism still run deep, with much resentment still prevalent based on the impacts of the Mau Mau Uprising. This theme was also strong in my previous Netflix review, The Last Circus, which branches from the cultural impact of the Spanish Civil War; perhaps reinforcing the long term social, cultural, and political effects of civil wars and internal strife, and the deeper spiritual damage these conflicts cause to both individuals and the nation as a whole. It’s interesting to note also that both of these films were released within days of each other.
Technically, The First Grader is a remarkable film. While it lacks the grand scope of what some would term an epic, the cinematography is more grounded in reality, and carefully developed to either take in the scope of the surrounding scenery or tell the story from the outlook of the character followed within a scene. The shots are carefully designed, and central to the characters, which is a significant and deliberate design and decision by director Justin Chadwick. This camera work in juxtaposition with the lighting totally absorbs you into the moods of the scenes, and with a spectacular score from Alex Heffes, forms a magnetic viewing experience.
The writing shapes the basis for these technical developments, thanks to a solid script from Ann Peacock. Everything shown and brought forward in the film is present for a specific reason, some elements which do not have a payoff ’til much later in the movie. There are no unnecessary scenes or subplots; everything works seamlessly together. And while I am certain that some liberties are taken from the accurate historical account, the general plot does not suffer from this too much and delivers a fairly sound representation of historical events.
Nevertheless, it must be said that it is the performances in this movie that make it the incredible experience it is. Oliver Litondo quite literally BECOMES Maruge, sinking deep into the character, and delivering an incomparable performance on screen. His eyes capture the memories and thoughts of his character, and carry the determination within despite Maruge’s physical disabilities that resulted from his abuse in prison.
Naomie Harris as teacher Obinchu is unquestionably stellar also, developing her character nicely through the film, with some solid emotion. Her eventual bond with Maruge is central to the story, as they share a dedication in which we see them fight for each other to do what it right. Her presence embodies a new breed of thought of “moving forward” and leaving the past behind, though she learns some hard lessons that this is never quite possible. A touching and uplifting display of emotion – Harris should be much-admired for her efforts in this film
Vusi Kunene is also in The First Grader, and portrays the less-than-likable Mr. Kipruto, serving as what would pass to be the local superintendent. Kunene first came to my attention in The Bang Bang Club, in a show-stealing performance of powerful emotion. In The First Grader, he flourishes the dexterity of his craft, with a spirited performance that is often borderline farce (though deliberate and might I add amusing during a couple of scenes) – to serve as a representation of the tribalism resentments still coursing deep in the culture. Kunene has quickly surfaced to near the top of my list of favorite actors of all time – and I highly recommend that folks keep an eye on him in future films: he is a most exceptional actor.
However, the show stealers in this movie are the children. The Kenyan children who form the class in The First Grader are absolutely delightful, showing a beautiful innocence and rare high-energy appreciation of living. There are some outtake shots of them during the credits that will endear them to you; but the performances by some of them in the central roles will warm your heart.
It is truly a rare delight to come across such a strong drama as this among Netflix’s eclectic range of streaming movies. The First Grader is an exceptional movie that you will find highly motivating and uplifting, as well as revealing of some of the history behind Kenya’s independence battles. The entire experience makes for a compelling viewing experience. Don’t just add this to the top of the queue – go and watch this one immediately!
Overall Rating: 5 out of 5