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The First Grader

May 22, 2011
The First Grader

In 1953, the Mau Mau uprising started a revolution that eventually liberated Kenya from British rule. It would be an understatement to say that it didn’t go smoothly, and by the time the British left there were ugly scars left all across the consciousness of the fledgling nation. Fifty years later, as events were starting to fade from direct memories to mere cultural artifacts, one of the former rebels decided to take advantage of the government’s offer of free education to learn to read. The First Grader tells his story.

Now, obviously the intent was to provide education to the children, but that doesn’t stop Kimani Ng’ang’a Maruge (Oliver Litondo in the present day and Lwanda Jawar in flashback) from showing up at the schoolhouse near his village at the age of 84. More bemused than anything else, the head teacher Jane Obinchu (Naomie Harris) decides to let him stay. Dutifully, Maruge sits among the children — his eyesight ruling out a seat further back than the first row — and begins scratching out his ABCs, dedicated to his goal of reading an official letter from the government for himself.

But not everyone is happy about the situation. Some of the parents feel their children are being shortchanged. Government administrators — particularly the local superintendent (Vusi Kunene) — fear for the precedent it sets, and a possible flood of other adult students who they believe should be going to the costly and poorly-run adult educational center in the city. Some people hold tribalist grudges long after the new government’s formation was supposed to have erased the distinctions between Kikuyu, Masai, and all the other groups. Some see conspiracies between press and government, and suspect Maruge and Obinchu of profiteering. And some simply find it improper for an old man to sit in class with young children. Their responses run the gamut from displeased grumbles to threats of official sanctions to rumors of infidelities on Obinchu’s part to physical intimidations.

But Maruge has seen and endured far worse than they can bring to bear. We often cut to flashbacks of the liquidation of his village; his induction into the Mau Mau; his brutal treatment in the prison camps. He stands not only as an example of the hunger for knowledge that provides a path into the future and, as he says, makes a man different from a goat, but also as a reminder of what has come before and the debt of respect the present owes the past, even if there are still disagreements in hindsight.

Now, as ennobling as Maruge’s true story is, it doesn’t completely survive the transition to the screen. It’s not that it’s bad, mind you; it’s just that there’s nothing particularly great about it. There’s little dramatic tension, little development of character, and little substance outside of a few well-delivered speeches. We’re left with a sense of Education Good, Tribalism Bad which I doubt anyone comes into the theater disagreeing with in the first place. The flashbacks gave a sense of what was sacrificed in the Mau Mau rebellion, and they were more interesting, but I’d actually prefer to just see a whole movie telling that story.

Worth It: not really, all told.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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