BY: Ava Baccari
Starring Oliver Litundo, Naomie Harris, Vusi Kunene, and Tony Kgoroge. Directed by Justin Chadwick. 103 minutes. PG-13
The opening scenes of The First Grader evoke the balmy, Lion King-esque Africa as gleaned from the pages of a National Geographic magazine. Makes sense: the film, set in contemporary Kenya, is distributed by National Geographic Entertainment, an offshoot of the international bible of globetrotting publications itself. The intricate artistry of the magazine’s countless Pulitzer-prize winning travel snapshots spills into lush cinematography of brooding blue skies set against the dusty roads of a rural Kenyan village.
It’s these images that map the tone of the film, based on the true story of Kimani Nganga Maruge, who in 2004 earned the Guinness World Record for being the oldest person to begin primary school. At 84, Maruge (Oliver Litundo) seeks the “freedom” of a proper education after fighting to relinquish his land from the grip of British colonial rule in the ‘50s. The First Grader traces the journey of a country’s struggle for self-determination, revealed through the lifetime of battles and prejudices endured by the war veteran, whose desire to be liberated from an external regime burns fiercely into his eighties as a yearning to be literate.
It’s 2002 and the Kenyan government has just announced it will provide free primary schooling. Maruge flocks to the local school where swarms of parents are battling to enroll their young children in the few coveted spots available. He’s up against an over-capacitated, under-funded school system reluctant to waste educating “an old man with one foot in the grave.” But Maruge persists, persuading the school’s head teacher Jane Obinchu (Naomie Harris) that “we are nothing if can’t read” and his right for the access to an education is equally relevant.
Director Justin Chadwick (The Other Boleyn Girl) weaves haunting flashbacks of Maruge’s past — the brutal murder of his wife and baby by British soldiers, haunting images of his own torture while captured in detention camps — into his present, as he attempts to assert himself in a society who only too quickly forgot his struggle for its freedom. (The oath he took up as a young Mau Mau soldier, to win back their land, cost him his hearing one ear, all ten toes and the inability to settle for the basic survival of his people. Many years later, he craves betterment, intellect, a future for them all.)
Chadwick’s hand selection of actual Kenyan locals — the school children Maruge soon finds himself struggling to learn the alphabet with and Litundo himself, who worked as a newscaster in Kenya in the ‘70s — as well as the film’s set, lends authentication to this heartening and heartbreaking tale. Tender and charming in its rendering, the film gracefully moves between moments of LOL interactions, as Maruge is embraced by his younger classmates, to harrowing reminders of the corruption and misogyny rampant in the impoverished nation.
The real Maruge, who died in Nairobi in 2009, before filming began, arrived in New York in 2005 to address the United Nations about the need for education in Africa. Wonder what the man who never stopped dreaming and believed education enabled freedom, must have thought when one of his own — a certain American president with Kenyan roots — was installed in the White House just four years after his first day of school. A