Prior to watching The First Grader, I thought the movie would be quite similar to other stories that I had seen in the past – a plain vanilla movie about a dedicated teacher, an old man determined to go to school, some strong oppositions; and then the finale. The movie does contain all of those elements but I didn’t expect the history lessons about Kenya’s fight against the colonial power in the past, and how a freedom fighter’s determination to study again at the age of 84 would be such an inspiration.
The story is about Kimani N’gan’ga Maruge (Oliver Litondo), an 84-year-old illiterate who used to be a Mau Mau fighter and swore an oath to fight for Kenya’s independence. When an announcement is made by the Kenyan government that everybody is entitled to get elementary school education for free. So among the hundreds of children jostling to get a spot in the local elementary school, Maruge decides to turn up and claims his entitlement. He doesn’t take no for an answer and through the sympathetic eyes of the teacher, Jane Obinchu (Naomie Harris), Maruge is allowed to join the school and learn how to read and write.
As much as I am tempted to write more about the story, I am cognisant that I would also be revealing the movie’s little gems in the process. The story is so simple that you would know the ending even before the title is shown; what you wouldn’t suspect is the little charms that make this movie so effective and so touching. From the lingering close-up of skins and books to the scenery of Kenya’s magnificent outdoors, the director Justin Chadwick delivers very well. There are parts of the movie that may seem dragging, but all in all, this is a low-key movie that deserves your attention.
It’s quite a paradox where people in far-flung corners of the world need to fight for their education and yet there are those who throw away the opportunities that are given to them so readily. Maruge is certainly an inspiration. The First Grader is based on a true story.