The True Story, and False Uplift, of One Man’s Quest to Read in The First Grader


Based on the true story of an 84-year-old Kenyan who took his government’s “education for all” promise literally, The First Grader turns literacy into historical melodrama. Character is history in Justin Chadwick’s dramatization of the story that made international headlines in 2003, a choice that gives the film a rough start. When a free primary school is opened in a remote Kenyan village, Maruge (Oliver Litondo), the recent recipient of a government letter he is determined to read for himself, shows up ready to learn. After being turned away by the bemused principal, Jane (Naomie Harris), and her prickly colleague, Alfred (Alfred Munyua), several times, Maruge finally gets to join the one-room schoolhouse when Jane relents. Word spreads almost immediately, and the villagers, having earned their freedom from British rule decades before, are paradoxically quick to lapse into greed and intolerance among themselves. Chadwick veers frequently into flashbacks to Maruge’s past as a Mau Mau resistance fighter—mostly prolonged scenes of torture and violence that do little to inform or propel the present-day story. Poorly defined tribal lines flare up, and Jane’s life is threatened, the point at which the script’s Hollywood contrivances open up and swallow this often charming film whole.