Saturday 18 November 2017

Film Review: The First Grader * * *

Paul Whitington

The British like to sentimentalise their colonial exploits and present themselves as benevolent, even avuncular rulers. But when you examine the facts, they weren't much better than the rest of them.

They certainly don't give a very good account of themselves in Justin Chadwick's drama The First Grader, set in present-day Kenya and based on a remarkable true story.

In 2001, after the Kenyan government introduced universal free education, an illiterate 84-year-old Kikuyu tribesman called Maruge (Olivia Musila Litondo) turns up at his tiny local primary school expecting to get educated.

Though the authorities are set against it, a kindly teacher called Jane (played by the beautiful and charismatic Naomie Harris) welcomes him to her class.

Maruge looks all at sea sitting in a class of seven-year-olds, but is determined to learn and soon begins to make progress.

When the international press find out about it, Maruge becomes something of a celebrity.

But some of the parents are not happy: in his distant youth Maruge was part of the Mau Mau Uprising, a nationalist revolt in the 50s that was crushed with phenomenal brutality by the British.

Maruge is haunted by traumatic memories of torture and loss, but faces adversity in the present too, thanks to lingering tribal prejudice.

Maruge's is a wonderful story, and Litondo is excellent as the dogged and dignified tribesman. The First Grader is pretty nice to look at too, and well told overall, but its tendency towards sentiment weakens what might have been a much stronger film.

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