Once you learn the true story behind The First Grader as well as the commendable manner in which it was filmed, it's unavoidable to feel even more fondness for an already lovable movie.
The First Grader, which was a late addition to this weekend's lineup at Kimball's Peak Three Theater, is one of those feel-good pictures celebrating brave defiance in the face of prejudice. Its happy ending will be familiar if you recall the international media around 2005 that paid homage to 84-year-old Kimani Ng'ang'a Maruge's fight to receive an education.
As the film depicts, the Kenyan government announced free primary school education to all in 2003, inspiring Maruge (Oliver Musila Litondo, in his first lead role) to finally learn how to read. One main reason for his desire, as we learn later, is that he's holding onto an official letter from the government that he desires to read for himself; the power and emotion of what's written is unveiled in the final act.
But before then, we watch Maruge struggle through every kind of hardship just to be received into his local classroom to sit among children 1/14 of his age: making a proper uniform, obtaining two pencils and an exercise manual and winning over the affections of teacher Jane Obinchu (a wonderful Naomie Harris of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise).
And once he's earned his seat in the schoolhouse, Maruge must contend with painful flashbacks to some 50 years ago when he was a freedom fighter with the Mau Mau, seeking independence from British rule. As we learn, he not only lost his family — killed in front of him — but was mercilessly tortured by his captors. One scene in which sharpening a pencil triggers a brutal memory is particularly well-handled by director Justin Chadwich (The Other Boleyn Girl).
Outside of Maruge's personal struggles, the community also reacts poorly to his sitting among their kids, and later acts even more reproachable when they accuse him of receiving money from the media for garnering international attention through his journey.
Obinchu, too, endures monumental resistance from her superiors, which thematically ties back cleanly to Maruge's struggle years before and teaches her a tough lesson in standing up for what she believes is right. Sadly, we see that half a century later, Kenya is no Utopia, with tribal prejudices referred to in several parts of the dialogue.
Chadwick and crew respectably and successfully fought their own fight to film inside Kenya, instead of opting for South Africa, an easier setting. They filmed an hour and a half outside of a major city and cast real schoolchildren from the countryside to play Maruge's classmates.
They cast Litondo, a former TV news anchor from the '70s, as Maruge in order to have a true Kenyan play the lead role. Litondo does a great job, with soulful eyes and nice depth between anger, fear and elation. Any greenness he exudes actually plays to the advantage of Maruge's character, that fish-out-of-water naivete of an old man in a grade school setting learning rhymes and such to master the alphabet.
Ultimately, The First Grader could be viewed as a handy propaganda piece for education — hence National Geographic's role in distribution — but really, who's going to argue against that?
The simplistic take-away message of "it's never too late to learn something new" is far overpowered in the film by Maruge's compelling narrative. And it's refreshing to accept this story as true from the get-go, letting the awe of one man's courage inspire naturally.
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