Harvey Critic - 03/05


"We get old too soon and too late smart." That Dutch proverb appears to apply to the title character in Justin Chadwick's sugar-coated movie "The First Grader," based on a true story and filmed on location in rural Kenya with real 5-year-old Kenyan kids in the cast. While the National Geographic Entertainment film has the look of a Hallmark Hall of Fame TV episode, the scenes of British brutality just might make the pic off limits to saccharine TV.

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National Geographic Entertainment

Reviewed for Arizona Reporter
By Harvey Karten

Grade: B+
Directed By: Justin Chadwick
Written By: Ann Peacock
Cast: Naomie Harris, Oliver Litondo, Tony Kgoroge, Shoki Mokgapa, Alfred Munyua, Vusi Kunene
Screened at: Review 2, NYC, 4/28/11
Opens: May 13, 2011

Yet another tale of how a great teacher can light a spark for people both inside and outside the classroom, "The First Grader" deals at least as much with the global inspiration activated by Kimani Ng'ang'a Maruge (Oliver Musila Litondo), a young-at-heart eight-four-year old who is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest guy to start primary school with the kiddies. Litondo had a career as a news reader for his country's radio, then moved on to minor roles, and now issues forth with a strong performance as an old man who is determined to learn to read. Why wait until eighty-four to do this? This fellow is poverty-stricken like a great many people in that third-world country and is able to enroll in a public school only when his government declared in 2000 that everyone is entitled to a free education. Perhaps the lawyers should have looked into the law, because the devil is outside the details: no-one expected an octogenarian to exploit the ruling and sit side-by-side with people seventy-nine years younger than he.

This is an impressive movie not only for its message that education is fundamental but revives the sad history of British imperialism in East Africa, an incursion that led to a Mau Mau uprising against the foreign occupation. While the film does not go into details as much as showing how Maruge is hanged upside down and beaten because he would not renounce his oath to the Mau Mau-freedom fighters in Kenya but terrorists to the British-let it be known that this radical group began its rebellion in 1952 unleashing civil war, since as many men in the Kikuyu tribe fought with the British as were in the liberation army. (The Mau Mau did not have the success it dreamed of because the notion of nationalism did not hit home in a country that found loyalties to a tribe and not to a "nation").

In the story, based on true events including the fact that the 84-year-old student was invited to speak to the UN in New York when his activities reached out beyond his country-the local teacher, Jane Obinchu (British actress Naomie Harris) is not a fan of admitting the old man to her class until his persistence leads her to devote valuable classroom space in an economically pinched climate to the fellow. Many of the citizenry turned against the teacher, accusing her of spending too much time on Maruge and thereby depriving their own children of the education they need. She gets around the regulations ultimately by making him a "teaching assistant," and in fact the man does do some teaching on his own, telling stories to the energetic kids and leading them in tribal dance. One unusual facet is that when he shows up at an adult-education school to which he is shunted, he discovered that the "mature" adults are bigger discipline problems than any kids.

The flashback episodes of British action against the Mau Mau are not too frightening for a potentially young movie audience, though we see how the younger Maruge looks on as his wife and child are killed by the colonialists and he is beaten, later exposing his scarred back to the chairman of the country's education department in Nairobi.

The scenes with the children, even more than with teacher and the title character. are the soul of the film. These kids had not been auditioned in a national search but are actual pupils in godforsaken rural areas where they have to walk (or run) six miles each way to attend the school. (This running may be instrumental in Kenya's frequent victories in the annual New York marathons each November.)

Discount the sweetness of the film, which seems a negative for only critics, and you have a story that should appeal to general audiences the world over.

Rated PG-13. 103 minutes. © 2011 Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online.

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