Based on the true story of Kimani N’gan’ga Maruge, an 84 year-old Kenyan villager and ex Mau Mau freedom fighter, “The First Grader” is the story of an elderly man’s fight to earn a fundamental right—to get an education. Denied schooling as a child, then imprisoned following a Mau Mau uprising against British imperialism in East Africa, the old man simply wants to learn to read so he may read and understand for himself a letter sent by the government offering compensation for his contribution to his country’s liberation from tyranny.
“The First Grader” might have made a good educational and motivational movie for kids but the violent scenes of British brutality are only appropriate for an older audience. The fullness of the story—and horror—are slowly revealed in flashbacks of Maruge’s life as we witness his torture and the unbearable sight of his wife and child murdered by British soldiers. Not for the kiddies, but compelling stuff.
The inspirational part of the story takes place in the present day. Maruge’s determination to get the education offered to all citizens is touching. At first he is rejected by the teachers at the school, Jane Obinchu (Naomie Harris), among them, before his resolve erodes away their objections. Then he stands up to the townsfolk who feel his presence in the kindergarten is taking teaching time away from their kids, then he must fight bureaucrats, corruption and controversy all in the effort to learn to read.
The story occasionally veers into melodrama but overall is a study in strength and dignity as personified by the old man and Jane, his young teacher.