The First Grader
by George Sax
Inspired by a feature in the Los Angeles Times, The First Grader relates the struggle of Kimani N’gan’ga Maruge (Oliver Litondo), who at the age of 84 sought to learn to read and write at a rural Kenyan primary school. In 2002 Kenya’s central government guaranteed a free basic education for all Kenyans. Hearing of this, Maruge presented himself at the nearest primary school to avail himself of the instruction, but was promptly turned away because of his age and the scarcity of space for children. Dignified and partly disabled from torture by British colonial forces almost a half-century earlier, Maruge persevered. Limping miles along a country road from his ramshackle farm to the schoolhouse several times, he eventually wore down the reservations of the teacher-principal (Naomie Harris) and was admitted.
There’s no gainsaying the inspirational quality of Maruge’s story and his stubborn dignity and individualism. And his backstory is representative of both Kenya’s colonial past and its attainment of independence from Great Britain. A warrior in the Mau Mau uprising against colonial rule in the 1950s, he suffered almost unimaginably in the often brutally administered British detention camps for years, under a cruelly violent repression that lasted over much of three Conservative governments in England, including Sir Winston Churchill’s.
Maruge’s story, before and after his late-life attempt to gain literacy, has obvious dramatic potential, but director Justin Chadwick and screenwriter Ann Peacock haven’t found a way to exploit it. The First Grader is too dramatically flat and scattershot. The opening scenes show some promise, but the film settles into a routine, emptily melodramatic treatment, with banal dialogue and undeveloped, distracting plot tangents (including the principal’s marital stress). And a dramatic device used for tension fizzles when it’s resolved near the end. The material might better have been served as a documentary: Instead, the filmmakers seem overwhelmed by their respect for the material and their unusual hero.
Watch the trailer for The First Grader
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