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The First Grader
Genre Biography
 
Review:

The First Grader is the inspiring true story of Kimani Maruge, a Kenyan ex-Mau Mau freedom fighter, who at the age of 84 fought the system for his right to an education he could never afford. This powerful biographical drama tells of a Maruge's struggle as he and primary school teacher, Jane Obinchu, stood up to a community and government that wanted to smother a man's right to basic education.

This is an important film, one of many incredible stories that have emerged from a continent with many dark secrets. Colonialism divided Africa as each country became a satellite empire and each conquest has left a chequered history with no winners. Kimani Maruge saw it all and had the courage to put his hand up when Kenya gave its people the right to a free education.

The First Grader may sound tame with an innocent movie title, but it's not for sensitive viewers. We're exposed to Maruge's stream of consciousness as a flood of painful memories of being a freedom fighter continue to haunt him. Many are unaware of the atrocity that gripped the nation and will be shocked to see these disturbing flashbacks contrasting the man's fight for education with the struggle for freedom.

Oliver Litondo plays Maruge and delivers a subtle, stoic and spirited performance as the title character. While he's had a few small parts, Litondo embodies Kimani's determination going to great lengths to add to the authenticity of the role, even wearing shoes too small for his feet (Maruge's toes were cut off). He's supported by Naomie Harris as Jane Obichu, a British actress whose credits include: 28 Days Later..., Miami Vice and Pirates of the Caribbean. She appears to have lost so much weight for the role that she looks like a child and delivers a stalwart performance as the young school teacher. The cast is boosted by accomplished South African character actors Tony Kgoroge and Vusi Kunene, who both add their weight behind the production.

Justin Chadwick, best known for The Other Boleyn Girl, directs this poignant drama with South Africa's very own Ann Peacock attached as screenwriter. Chadwick balances the experienced cast with an inexperienced real class of extras with a few standout performances, who add to the film's authenticity and provide a wonderful contrast for Oliver Litondo's role as a sweet old man dressed in his school uniform. Peacock's delivers a winning heartfelt script with equal dabs of light and dark to keep the drama taut and flesh out Maruge's back story only to make his achievement even more remarkable.

The cinematography is effortless, taking Kenya's natural beauty and keeping the dull central location of the primary school fresh with young faces. The First Grader starts off strong with some parallels to I Am Slave, another powerful drama about the slave trade in Sudan, contrasting the painful past with the hopeful present. Yet, once the characters have been established and the gist of the story has been rooted - The First Grader struggles to maintain its intensity and hits a lull of inevitability as Maruge's opposition fall away.

The First Grader remains engaging, inspiring and a must-see for its cathartic message of hope, healing and restoration. The solid performances, the deft direction, the heartfelt script and the authenticity of the Kenyan setting overpower its minor flaws and subdued second half, leaving a thought-provoking film that has scooped a heap of film festival audience awards. The sort of film that inspired Sarafina!'s Whoopi Goldberg to say "Run, do not walk, and go see this."

The bottom line: Powerful 

 

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