Inspiring and heart-warming are words that will easily be pegged to the description of The First Grader. The story of an 84 year old Kenyan man enrolling in primary school is, after all, the sort of feel-good thing you expect to hear after all the bad news has been dispensed with, the sort of story that puts a smile on your face and helps you forget about all that terribly depressing stuff until the next news bulletin.
With a solid performance from Oliver Litondo, a former TV news anchor, playing Kimani Maruge, the illiterate old man on a quest for education; an earnest performance from Naomie Harris as Teacher Jane, ardent champion of Maruge’s cause; and a school full of real Kenyan pupils playing themselves (special kudos to little Agnes Simaloi and Kamau Mbaya) there’s a lot to smile and cheer about in The First Grader.
The official blurb reads:
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 humour, 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.
Directed by Justin Chadwick (THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL, BLEAK HOUSE) from a script by Emmy-winner Ann Peacock (THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA, NIGHTS IN RODANTHE, KIT KITTRIDGE), 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.
So why is it that, despite the beautiful cinematography setting off the ruggedly beautiful rural landscape in contrast to the modern and urban glitz of Nairobi, and the rousing soundtrack that gave all the emotional cues right on time, I couldn’t help but go beyond the images and the music, and all the effort that had gone into portraying the people and history of Kenya, and felt there was something missing?
I think the answer to my question might lay in the penultimate paragraph cited in synopsis above or, more precisely, the huge absence of it in the actual film. Yes, there are several flash backs to a beautiful wife and child in past times, reminders of their harrowing final demise, and images of the brutal torture endured by Maruge while in detention, but all this is pretty much a footnote to Maruge’s story, the memories of a lonely old man, rather than an exploration of the life of a man that would be so determined, so late in life, to chance ridicule and brave staunch opposition in order to get what was denied him during his colonial past. We get it - bad British, heroic Kenyan. We are told time and time again how Maruge fought for Kenya, how he fought against the British, how he’s a Mau Mau who stood up for his people… But that’s just it, it’s mainly spouting from the mouth of a character - all tell and not enough show.
Let’s be honest, the premise of an old man attending primary school is an interesting one but it doesn’t make for much drama. The opposition he encounters from authorities and the parents of his classmates provides for some dramatic tension (which was swatted away as easily as a fly, if the film is anything to go by), but there’s only so much of that that can happen without it becoming Teacher Jane’s story and, at some stage in the film, that’s what it becomes - even to the point where we have the whole school, and later on Maruge himself, taking a stand for their beloved head teacher.
As one person I watched the film with mentioned, you watch and you think: well, at least they showed a bit of the history, so that’s something… Indeed, another person mentioned she knew nothing about Kenya’s history, so it was all new to her and made her want to find out more, and that’s not a bad thing. But I fail to see why or how a screenwriter who has adapted classic allegorical children’s literature containing deep seated Christian theological concepts, and a director whose previous work includes alternative exploration of British history, should somehow not feel the need to put into context the early life of a man who, under colonial rule, was viewed as a second class citizen in his own country, denied land and education in order to keep him subjugated to a foreign ruling invader, and who would then resort to terrorism in order to fight back. What we end up with instead is Maruge being reduced to the noble savage in the tale of a much loved teacher and her adoring pupils and, of course, like any decent noble savage, he does the honourable thing and comes to her aid.
Sadly, even the film’s claim to be a triumphant testimony to the transforming force of education doesn’t quite come off as, as far as we can tell, Maruge never actually learns to read well enough to read a letter from the Kenyan government for himself, and one of the children, who goes on to lead the revolt against Teacher Jane’s replacement, is actually held up as being rather slow, much to his father’s chagrin.
The filmmaker clearly wanted to honour the warmth, beauty and dignity of the people and community his filmed in, but it seemed to me that he let his awe at the generous spirit of the people and sights he encountered in rural Kenya get in the way of telling a truly dramatic, well contextualised, tenacious tale of human spirit in the face of adversity rather than just a feel-good human-interest one.
By the way, Justin Chadwick, the director of The First Grader, is also the director of Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom, which stars Idris Elba and Naomie Harris, reteaming with Chadwick.
It is now streaming on Netflix.