When education hits the hometown headlines, it’s usually due to bullying, disruptive student, or “non-essential,” but vital programs having been gutted. There are still places where the zeal and hunger for knowledge understanding and growth come through like a natural force.
One new film, “The First Grader,” a drama from director Justin Chadwick (“The Other Boleyn Girl” and “Bleak House”), reminds us of that zeal and the kind of history or community oral memory that keeps it stoked. This film is the extraordinary story of a man who seized his people’s first opportunity to learn to read right when his First World contemporaries would be reading hospice brochures.
In 2002 the Kenyan government invited all citizens to attend primary school for free. This led to surprising and stymieing situation: according to the film, more than 200 children came in throngs to claim the school’s 50 seats.
One man showed up, not with his son in tow, nor his grandson, but himself and his zealous curiosity. At age 84, Kimani N’gan’ga Maruge, who had served his country as a Mau Mau guerilla, was prepared to sit among children so he could learn to read. “The First Grader” extols the power and promise of basic education, the essential literacy and people’s zeal for it. Contrast this with the disappointing portion of American youths who, having taken free public education for granted, squander their opportunities to milk it to their curiosity’s fill.
This is being shown at Landark Theatre’s Edina Theatre for a week from May 27st.
The zealous reminder about the promise of education is powerful. Mr. Maruge’s (Oliver Litondo) dual narrative, from, first off, his incredible personal history to, secondly, his equally winning pursuit of knowledge and access. These topics of literacy and access are one half of the story’s message, vital for those, whose elders didn’t raise them within reach of books. The other historical message, although dwarfed by the main plot, provides a lesson about the prices paid in Kenya’s fight for freedom, to lead itself.
My conversation with Justin Chadwick tells more details and insights about Mr. Maruge’s complex story and how he put it on-screen.
The Mau Mau soldiers, despite British colonial propaganda, zealously opposed Britain’s inhumane, violent tyranny. This is a barely known slice of African and Kenyan history that is probably, largely omitted from American and British high school history texts. In many ways, Mr. Maruge’s magnetism is so potent the hardest-to-watch parts of his whole history can nourish viewers. We are introduced to a piece of history – lost, stolen or strayed.
Chadwick’s film tells us that Maruge simply wanted to be able to read a letter, not just any. But one from the government. It apologized for the abuses and thanked him for his sacrifice and service to a sovereign Kenya, and told him of reparations.
Feel-good movies are simple yarns for simple people. “The First Grader” is a mostly family-friendly and crowd-pleasing story. Usually viewers only need to be open to the high-concept “seize the day” or “power of one” messages in order to appreciate them These stories are basic tales that reiterate what your parents extolled until they became sick of you rolling your eyes.
It’s remarkable that Justin Chadwick defies this genre’s typical limitations: simplicity, and shallow, flat portrayals & narratives. It’s a feel-good story that takes us back to “Lean on Me,” from 1989, “The Power of One,” from 1992, or “Dangerous Minds,” from 1995.
Very few films deal with mature, difficult historical topics with candor and without bias, especially with Africa; it’s misunderstood and tainted with Western stereotypes. Mr. Chadwick defies the Hollywoodian routine of taking a black story and then identifying or conjuring a superior Anglo hero as the lead, even when that clashes with the historical record. This happened in often: in “Glory,” from 1988, “The Power of One,” “Amistad,” from 1997, and other films.
Thank goodness, as Mr. Chadwick mentioned in our conversation, there’s humor in this movie to staple viewers’ butts to their seats. Kenyan radio DJ Churchill has bits throughout where he gives a voice to the public’s opinion of Maruge and his situation.
That reminds me of New York-based comedian, Rachel Feinstein, who has a witty and hilarious bit, where she lovingly mocks her mom’s closet desire to take Michelle Pfeiffer’s place in Dangerous Minds:
My mom wants to be, like, one of those white women, in the movies, that saves a black school; like Michelle Pfeiffer, in “Dangerous Minds.” I think that’s her dream.
Unfortunately YouTube doesn’t have this clip (nor do DailyMotion or Vimeo), but it is elsewhere – it’s well worth a click, and a chuckle, specifically at 00:36.
But “The First Grader” takes a risk: it introduces viewers to a history of British colonists and their arrogant barbarism toward the Natives. The Mau Mau rebellion is probably a rare topic for American students, outside of high-level college classes.
It’s a portion of Kenyan and British colonial history that has been easily lost, stolen or strayed; that’s also the title of an incisive, but accessible documentary, “Black History: Lost, Stolen or Strayed,” which Bill Cosby made 40 years ago, in 1968, as a part of his doctoral program. The film illustrated the slippery slope that can lead to forgotten, rarely comfortable, but undeniably vital slices of history that prove to be too tart for the majority to swallow without flailing.
A meager excerpt, a tease, from “Black History: Lost, Stolen or Strayed?”
What doesn’t work? The people who fought against Mr. Maruge being a student had shallow arguments for expelling him from class. “There isn’t enough room or money?!” They are simple, hard-working people who can’t understand why an old man would push so hard to be a student. It’s too bad that their arguments against his being allowed are narrow and shoddy.
“The First Grader” provides two takeaways, one for the feel good audience: no one is too old to be a student. And another for those who already know this, and have brought someone to the theater; they’ll enjoy the subplot about Mr. Maruge’s backstory, and what it reveals about a vital, but well-hidden topic of African, Kenya, British and ultimately World history.
You’ll find more details, in my interview with the director, Justin Chadwick. You’ll learn why yet another Anglo man made a movie about Africans, and the unbelievable Hollywoodian climactic riot scene wasn’t yet another one conjured by that Dream Factory.