I remember the biography Life Is So Good by George Dawson. That story is of a 90 year-old-man who decides to finally learn to read, achieving his GED at age 103. At first glance, The First Grader may appear to be a Kenyan version of Life Is So Good. However, you throw in Kenya's tortured history and the inter tribal strife after independence and The First Grader moves away from a potentially cute inspirational story. Instead, it becomes a darker tale of human cruelty where a hope for redemption is mixed with the bitterness from the past.
Independence from British rule has come to Kenya. The government has now promised 'free education for all'. With that in mind, Kimani N'gan'ga Maruge (Oliver Litondo) goes to the local elementary school to register so as to learn to read and right. Now, the school is overwhelmed by applications and the school is extremely overcrowded with youngsters. Maruge, however, is determined to get his free education. However, there is a small hitch: Maruge is 84 years old.
This causes difficulties for the school administrators, in particular Teacher Jane (Naomie Harris). She admires his determination, but an 84-year-old among a group of six year olds? They put all sorts of obstacles, such as requiring him to get a school uniform, all in the hopes of having him just go away. Maruge, however, is not deterred, and finally (perhaps with a glint of a smile), Jane registers him for class. This does not sit well with the villagers or the higher-ups in Nairobi, who think resources are being wasted on such an old man. At one point he is pushed to go the adult education center, which is much further away and which is a borderline brothel/drug den where the adults show no interest in learning. Eventually Jane finds a way around the situation: she has Maruge be her assistant (although everyone knows this is a rouse).
As the film goes, we learn about Maruge's past as a Mau Mau and the torture he underwent as a prisoner of the British, including the deaths of his wife and child. His past comes to him as he continues to attempt to learn his letters and numbers despite the fierce opposition. Eventually, their stubbornness gets Maruge kicked out and Jane 'transferred'. However, the other students make their views known, and a personal appeal by Maruge to the Chairman in Nairobi to allow him to stay at the elementary school. However, by this point Maruge's story has inspired others to pursue education: if HE can do it .
The First Grader has a subject matter that cries for a sweet treatment, but director Justin Chadwick and screenwriter Ann Peacock avoid overt sentimentality. This is done first by not making Maruge into a sweet old man. Instead, he is seen at times in an unpleasant light: he expresses bigotry against the regional administrator of education because he happens to belong to a different tribal group. Second, they do not shy away from portraying the dark side of the Mau Mau uprising. We get some shocking imagery of the torture Maruge endured, as well as the scars. Under Chadwick's direction and with Litondo's performance, Maruge appears to be a whole person: someone who truly wants to learn. The sadness he has when he is virtually trapped at the adult learning center is almost heartbreaking, and this is with him not speaking. Rather, it is his face that registers so much.
As the teacher caught between following instructions and her insticts, Harris maintains a balance between caring for Maruge and doing right for all her students. She also manages to bring the conflict between herself and her husband Charles (Tony Kgoroge) over their forced separation without it being the central point. Above all else, as portrayed by Harris, Teacher Jane is excellent as portraying as someone from the generation post-independence, who has no memory of the British rule, and most importantly, who sees herself as Kenyan, not a member of a separate tribe. This allows her to see how wrong Maruge is to think opposition to his attending primary school is based strictly on his tribe.
However, by and large by the end of The First Grader we can't help but admire and like Maruge because of his determination to learn, even if at times he is uncomfortable at having children learn faster than he can. There are moments when Maruge is delighting in writing out numbers and letters, going over them in his small shack, and it's hard not to smile at how happy he is to be learning. Somehow, having such an old man, in his school uniform and cane, be part of a group of children, teaching them himself, is both inspirational and delightful.
I figure The First Grader is aimed to be inspiration and heartwarming. That being the case, the film does this very well. When the children rise up against the new head teacher, demanding Teacher Jane's return, audiences can easily cheer them on because we know the reason she was transferred was not because of anything she did wrong but due to intense pressure from those above her and the villager's appalled at the idea of such an old man in their mind gettting more attention than their children.
If there is anything to look at The First Grader that could have been done better it might have been to focus more on the villager's opposition and less on Teacher Jane's marriage troubles. At times, going over how Maruge's presence in the school causes difficulties for her and her husband (including anonymous calls harrassing both of them) appeared to be going to another story altogether. While we get a general idea as to why the villagers oppose Maruge's attendance, even going so far as getting some glimpses of this via villager David Chenge (Israel Makoe) who is displeased about how he thinks his son is being ignored, those moments aren't pursued as much as perhaps they might have been.
One thing I cannot vouch for is how the Mau Mau were. At one point, we do see a young Maruge go into a plantation to steal weapons if memory serves correct. I don't know enough about the Mau Mau to say they were liberation fighters or terrorists or a mix of both. If Maruge or the Mau Mau did horrible things to the British, we don't see that in The First Grader. However, Maruge's involvement with the Mau Mau is not the central point, only background to his struggle to learn to read the letter he received long ago and which he wants to read under his own power.
On the whole, The First Grader is a good film because we get an interesting story told well. It is rare when we get a story from Africa, especially a positive one. The stories people are used to hearing about this tortured continent are usually ones of conflict and violence. This story of a man who thinks it is never too late to learn is a universal one. Inspirational, generally sweet but not afraid of tackling the darker aspects of human nature (even from the protagonist), The First Grader makes clear that what Maruge tells the press once they get wind of the story is true:
The Power Is In The Pen.