JWR Articles: Film/DVD - The First Grader (Director: Justin Chadwick) - January 24, 2011
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The First Grader

2 2
98 min.

Reviewed at the 2011 Palm Springs International Film Festival
There’s still so much to learn

OK class. After a viewing of the “true story” of Kenyan Mau Mau freedom fighter Kimani N’han’ga Maruge (Oliver Litondo is ideally cast), your assignment is to record ten “facts” learned—in reverse order of importance so as to have a popular-media feel and wider readership for the piece.

10. Towards the end of their colonization of Kenya, British troops and well-fed local “loyalists” killed or imprisoned anyone caught who would not renounce their sworn oath to rid the country of those who had stolen their land.

9. Surviving octogenarians in the present day have two occupations: attending grade school; drinking beer while ridiculing those who have taken advantage of the government’s free education program.

8. Grade school Kenyans in “the middle of nowhere” are perfectly behaved in class and prepared to go on strike (literally hurling their recess plastic play buckets at the authorities) if a favourite teacher (Jane Obinchu, effectively rendered by Naomie Harris) is transferred far away from their classroom due to political/tribal motivations.

7. Adult school in Nairobi is a shambles of loudmouthed layabouts who have no interest in improving their lives.

6. Husband-and-wife relationships, trying to endure city/country distance challenges can be put on the rocks with just a couple of calls to the frequently absent husband (Tony Kgoroge is unbelievably naive) from an anonymous source.

5. A goat can be used as bus fare.

4. An 84-year-old man in the first grade can single-handedly drive away a horde of men who resent his presence amongst their impressionable children.

3. Kenya’s education/roots can lead to anything—just ask Barack Obama (rumour has it that Michelle is from the African state as well; “Yes we can,” makes a saccharine appearance).

2. Correctly drawing the number 5 is but a rhyme away from success.

1. Although “just nine of us” came to Kenya to make the film, all of the important “assignments” went to Anglophones (according to the director during his pre-screening comments)—if the roles were reversed (key personnel black, “inexpensive” camera-hungry local talent white), this would be a completely different film. JWR

PS: Not since Invictus has such a magnificent story from the African continent featured a consummate actor (Morgan Freeman) only to be washed up on the narrative rocks, causing many to hope for a remake that might truly tell the tale.

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