The First Grader
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In a small, remote mountain top primary school in the Kenyan bush, hundreds of children are jostling for a chance for the free education newly promised by the Kenyan government. One new applicant causes astonishment when he knocks on the door of the school. He is Maruge (Litondo), an old Mau Mau veteran in his eighties, who is desperate to learn to read at this late stage of his life. He fought for the liberation of his country and now feels he must have the chance of an education so long denied - even if it means sitting in a classroom alongside six-year-olds. Moved by his passionate plea, head teacher Jane Obinchu (Harris), supports his struggle to gain admission and together they face fierce opposition from parents and officials who don't want to waste a precious school place on such an old man. Full of vitality and humor, the film explores the remarkable relationships Maruge builds with his classmates some eighty years his junior. Through Maruge's journey, we are taken back to the shocking untold story of British colonial rule 50 years earlier where Maruge fought for the freedom of his country, eventually ending up in the extreme and harsh conditions of the British detention camps. THE FIRST GRADER is a heart-warming and inspiring true story of one man's fight for what he believes is his right in order to overcome the burdens of his past. It is a triumphant testimony to the transforming force of education.
Movie Reviews from Rotten Tomatoes
- Reviews Counted: 71
- Fresh: 42
- Rotten: 29
- Average Rating: 5.6/10
Top Critics' Reviews
Fresh: A tearful, joyful, imperfect, yet nearly irresistible ode to the human spirit.
Fresh: Strong performances and a stripped-down visual aesthetic help mitigate some of the movie's potential mawkishness.
Rotten: You marvel all the more at Litondo's and Harris's performances, considering how much claptrap Ann Peacock's script requires them to put up with.
Rotten: Too bad the script is predictable at every turn.
The First Grader is a Transcendent Human Story
The First Grader", like Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire, seamlessly combines story and place to create an illuminating beacon for our time.
"The First Grader" portrays the story of Kimani Maruge, an 84 year old Mau Mau veteran who helped liberate Kenya from the British. After the Kenyan government announced in 2003 that free schooling would be offered for all, Maruge, played marvelously by Kenyan actor Oliver Litondo, arrives at a primary school to finally get his chance at an education - long denied under oppressive colonial rule and unavailable to him since independence.
As the story unfolds, the realities of rural Kenyan life intermix with Maruge's traumatic memories of torture, incarceration, and the murder of his loved ones, which he endured steadfastly for the sake of freedom. These very real scenes make a powerful emotional impact but with a remarkable reverence, a profound sense of calling and self respect despite injustice. There is an artistic elegance to this film that combines truth telling with transcendence.
'The First Grader", based on a true story, uses a school full of actual Kenyan pupils playing themselves. Oliver Litondo (Maruge) explains that high up in the Rift Valley "education is coming in as a new thing." The youngsters were not surprised to see an older student, there was already a fifteen year old in a class of six year olds, so the students accepted Maruge as one of them - just another student seeking an education like they were. Shared goals and shared experiences create a bond between the young students and Maruge.
There are also important shadow elements in the story written by screenwriter Ann Peacock. "The First Grader" deftly covers the post World War II history of Kenya: moving back and forth from Maruge's struggle against British rule to his struggle against tribal prejudice and mistrust of his motives in 21st century Kenya. By combining traditional Kenyan music with his own compositions, composer Alex Heffes creates a rich sonic landscape.
The film, compellingly crafted by cinematographer Rob Hardy, opens with a gaggle of school children running through mist shrouded trees to their isolated but beckoning new school. On this first day of the new term hundreds of children and their parents jostle to find a place. The exuberance of youth contrasts with the dogged strength of Kimani Maruge and the desperate drive of parents struggling to gain a coveted spot at school for their child.
Naomie Harris plays teacher Jane Obinchu who grows to support Maruge's fierce drive to learn. The joy of learning and the bond between teacher and students is so evident in "The First Grader" that while watching the film, I felt as if the audience was compelled to grab a sharpened pencil and join the class.
'The First Grader" is a transcendent human story about confronting injustice and achieving redemption. The film spreads balm for old wounds and lifts the spirit with hope for the future. "The First Grader" is highly recommended.
(Please Note: During the First Grader's theatrical release, I attended a marvelous question and answer session with Justin Chadwick, Naomie Harris, Richard Harding and Sam Feuer. I met Justin at that event and he mentioned that people were asking him if his brother had written a review of the film. Justin and I are not knowingly related but I am sure if you follow the genetic path you will find a connection somewhere in the distant past. In honor of my artistic brothers and sisters and their beautiful film, "The First Grader", I am posting my thoughts on this marvelous film.)