Oliver LitondoNaomie HarrisIsrael Makoe
The First Grader
Medium: film
Year: 2010
Director: Justin Chadwick
Writer: Ann Peacock
Actor: Oliver Litondo, Lwanda Jawar, Dan 'Churchill' Ndambuki, Abubakar Mwenda, Agnes Simaloi, Alfred Munyua, Naomie Harris, Shoki Mokgapa, Kathyline Ndogori, Israel Makoe, Kamau Mbaya, Shirlen Wanjari, Benta Ochieng, Peter Emera Pious, Joel Rempesa, Peter Marias, Tony Kgoroge, Nick Reding, Kamau Ndungu, Vusi Kunene, Gilbert K. Lukalia, Irene Kariuki, Rosemary Nyambura
Country: UK, USA, Kenya
Language: English, Swahili [I think]
Format: 103 minutes
Url: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0790663/
Website category: British
Review date: 9 April 2012
If it weren't a true story, it would be underplotted, slow and lacking in drama. However as it is, it's inspiring.
The story's set in Kenya. The government announced free primary education for everyone in 2003, whereupon Kimani N'gan'ga Maruge (here played by Oliver Litondo) took this more literally than anyone expected and turned up along with all the children so that he could learn to read. He was 84. This is charming and funny, since he's such a stubborn old bugger who won't take "no" for an answer when the school points out that they're squeezing a hundred children into a classroom meant for fifty. It's also a reminder of the value of education, by showing us what it looks like through the eyes of someone who'd never had any.
However that's just the present-day narrative. There are also sequences set in the 1950s, which are too many just to be called flashbacks and too few to be called a second narrative. These show us Maruge as a young man (now played by Lwanda Jawar) and his sufferings at the hands of the British in the Mau Mau uprising.
Time for some history. The Mau Mau uprising ran from 1952-1960, but didn't capture popular support and was effectively over as a military campaign when the British captured the rebel leader in 1956. It wasn't all Kenyans, or even most of them. It was one tribe, the Kikuyu, and feelings have run high ever since in Kenya about what happened. You get a flavour of that in this film. Atrocities were committed by both sides, both the Kikuyu and the British, while it's also true that despite the uprising's failure, Kenya won independence three years later in 1963.
I should also talk about the British in Kenya. I've seen it described as the British empire's most openly racist regime, even before the insurgency. The white settlers had expropriated seven million acres of land and would treat their native labourers appallingly, sometimes flogging them to death. This was normal behaviour before the uprising. After it though, the acts committed by Kikuyu resistance fighters convinced the authorities that they were fighting against subhuman animals, justifying any and all behaviour towards them. In 1953 they started mass deportations of Kikuyu to reservations and detention camps, i.e. British-run gulags. Maruge's wife and children were killed. The use of torture and summary executions isn't dissimilar to what the French were doing in Algeria... and here we see it. The film doesn't manage to make it feel like the 1950s, but it definitely convinces us that ghastly things were going on and that Maruge went through hell in the camps.
So that's in the movie too. Maruge's learning to read in a children's class, but he saw his children killed in the camps. What's more, people have strong feelings about him being there. Maybe they object to his age, or else maybe it's tribal politics dating back half a century. People make threatening phone calls to his teacher (Naomie Harris), try to get him kicked out of school and in one case send a stone-throwing mob to turf him out.
That last bit is high entertainment, by the way. 84-year-old Maruge goes out to meet them and starts beating them with his walking stick.
I hope you see what I meant about the "true story" bit. Not much happens in either era, although it doesn't happen in different ways. However the truth and the emotion are what make it important. What Maruge saw, did and believes are all important and that gives the film its strength.
As a piece of movie-making, it's excellent. It was all shot in Kenya and most of the actors are locals, with great energy and vivacity. The children are all naturals. The performances are good enough to have attracted Oscar talk, although in the end it didn't get any nominations, and obviously Oliver Litondo is the star of the show. He's got the kind of dignity and strength on camera that you'd expect of someone like Morgan Freeman and he carries the film triumphantly. My only complaint is that he's less fun than the real Maruge, who appears in the extras on the DVD. The real Maruge is snaggle-toothed, not ambassadorial. He's kind of goofy-looking. He's also wonderful. I'd have loved to see more of that Maruge, but that said Litondo is an excellent fit for how you'd imagine a role like this and no one can say he doesn't do a sterling job.
Naomie Harris is just as important as him, though. She's the teacher who accepts him into her class and ends up catching hell from all sides as a result. She's British and she was in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, in case you were wondering where you'd heard her name before. She's excellent too.
By the way, this film's producers Sam Feuer and Richard Harding had four years earlier made a documentary about him, called The First Grader: The True Story of Kimani N'gan'ga Maruge.
In summary, I'd strongly recommend this one. It's slow. It feels longer than its running time and it's visibly struggling to find enough plot business to fill a movie. It also can't help but bend the truth a bit, for instance implying that Maruge seeing his children killed in the 1950s means that today he's childless, whereas in fact he was a great-grandfather and had thirty grandchildren. On the other hand though it's special. It's telling a story that can't help but make you smile and will make you better appreciate things we all tend to take for granted. Furthermore it won a bunch of awards from film festivals and deserved them.
The real Maruge died in 2009 aged 89, but by then he'd become something of a celebrity and was invited to New York City to address the United Nations Millennium Development Summit on the importance of free primary education. Better still, as a model student, in 2005 he was elected head boy of his school.