Kimani N’gan’ga Maruge holds the Guinness World Record for being the oldest person, at age 84, to start elementary school, which means it’d be some kind of record itself if his life weren’t used as the basis of an inspirational movie. But The First Grader’s heartwarming aspects are made more complex and interesting by the amount of Kenyan history packed into Maruge’s story. He isn’t simply an elderly man who turns up at the gate of a rural school after hearing about the government’s promise of a free primary-school education for everyone. He’s a former Mau Mau member who lost his family because of his participation in an uprising against the British colonialists that laid the ground for Kenya’s independence.
Like many of The First Grader’s characters, Maruge is played by a native Kenyan, former news anchor Oliver Litondo, who portrays the would-be student as fiercely determined and distinctly uncute. It takes time for his classmates, and the audience, to warm to him, and the way he’s opened up by the learning process and the kindness of (some of) those around him is an irresistible pleasure. But this leaves his idealistic teacher (Naomie Harris) to fight and be eloquent on his behalf, as his presence in the already overcrowded school attracts resentment from local parents and attention from the media.
Harris is an affable actor, but her character’s unflagging devotion to Maruge can seem unbalanced, given all the tsuris it earns her—her marriage, career, and personal safety are threatened, just because the old man wants to read. It takes the revelation of Maruge’s past, portrayed in staccato flashbacks, to balance the film by making its central question not about the right to education, but about what a society owes those who sacrificed to help make it possible. While the legacy of the Mau Mau Uprising is more complicated than The First Grader is able to depict, the film does glance at the tangle of tribal loyalties vs. national ones, as well as the violence that took place on both side of the conflict. Maruge’s bearing of the scars he was given while in a British detention camp becomes the incontrovertible testimony that no amount of dissembling and self-interest can counter.
The First Grader offers a tumultuous but uplifting journey, though it seems likely that an equivalent American film about an eightysomething illiterate PTSD-wracked veteran who squeezes into a school uniform and insists on enrolling in first grade would have to be played for dark comedy.