Decades after surviving the senseless tragedies of the Kenyan liberation from the British in the 1950s, Kimani Maruge (Oliver Litondo) learns about the opportunities for Kenyan children to gain a free education. Jumping for the chance at 84 years-old, Maruge fights for his own place in the school alongside scores of six year olds, seeing countless hurdles and challenges. With the aid of his teacher (Naomie Harris), Maruge makes his mark in the school and becomes an unforgettable figure.
Soon capturing the attention of the international media, Maruge’s story becomes the controversial fodder of world news, making him a divisive character in the community. Based on the true story of Kimani Maruge, director Justin Chadwick and screenwriter Ann Peacock managed to fight against the familiar struggles of film financing and along with BBC Films and Origin Pictures.
Marking the importance of education, The First Grader also surrounds itself in personal legacies and memories of the past. Being the sole survivor of his slaughtered family, Maruge’s mind is constantly in the past, with simple acts of sharpening pencils triggered traumatic memories. One particular flashback is particularly distressing alongside the wonderful score from Alex Heffes which flows ever so movingly throughout the film.
Scenes shot in the present show the Kenyan landscape through a dusty, desert bleakness, as opposed to the flashback scenes of liberation shown with more grass and bright sunshine. Cinematographer Rob Hardy manages to capture both in contrast to the opportunities of the time. Despite its current bleakness, the present allows for hope against the oppressions of the past.
Oliver Litondo plays Maruge with a tremendous amount of sadness and tenderness. With his first starring role, Litondo captures the heart, anger and true yearning for the opportunities given to his fellow young Kenyans. Harris is also strong as his teacher and the film is supported from a group of charming young children.
The First Grader is a definitely must see and an inspiring story of hope and willpower. Maruge’s determination is a testament to the power of the human spirit in the face of tremendous adversity. A tad slow to begin with, the film picks up much speed and is deeply moving. The filmmakers have made an important film that joins the likes of countless inspirational films about the triumphs of education.
The First Grader opened theatrically in Australia on November 17 and opened on December 22 in New Zealand through Rialto Distribution.