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IN SHORT: If the story wasn't true you probably wouldn't believe it. [Rated PG-13. 103 minutes]
All that we know about the history of Kenya is this: nothing. Pretty much all we need to know about the history of Kenya is properly summarized in the screenplay of The First Grader. Onwards...
The FIrst Grader is a pretty good sit recounting a true story (yep, another one of those) that no screnwriter could successfully pitch, were it not true. To wit: The Minister of Education of a newly independent Kenya has declared, in a radio broadcast, that ["all will be given a free education"]. "All" must provide a birth certificate and "all" would be admitted to a school. At the schoolo house setting for this film, 200 children show up to fill its 50 available seats.
Then comes one more student, determined to hold the Minister to his word. He is Maruge (Oliver Litondo), and he is 84 years old. Fifty years of so earlier, he had fought in the uprising against British rule, a tidbit of information that will have ramifications by the film's end (so, of course, we're not spilling). As the film begins, Maruge has received a letter that looks important. He wants to be able to read it for himself. The radio broadcast did say "all will receive a free education". Emphasis on the word all. Maruge may not be able to read but his ears, even at 84, are pretty good.
The local teacher, Jane Obinchu (Naomie Harris), tries to gently discourage Maruge. We won't tell the challenges that are placed before the aged man, because how he meets each challenge is half the fun of the film. Maruge is finally admitted but the Minister himself orders the old man expelled from the school. The press, god bless 'em, got wind of the story and the Minster feels that he has been made to look like a fool -- Jane does so, and then comes up with the only viable alternative. She hires Maruge as her teaching assistant.
Maruge may not be able to read, but he has decades of historical knowledge on top of all sorts of tribal histories and songs which, previously, would have brought the disparate tribes of the country to battle. The kidlets know nothing of this and, as we gather, the tribal system has been abolished under new Kenyan law. Again, Maruge's presence makes the Minister look foolish.
The Minister doesn't like looking foolish. 'nuff said.
It is an interesting friendship that develops between teacher and assistant, with running commentary from gentlemen of Maruge's generation who spend their days hanging out at what seems to be a run down general store/bus stop, drinking beer and shooting off their mouths. That's just one of a number of small bits that keep the film interesting to watch.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Ten Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to The First Grader, he would have paid . . .
The First Grader is a well made film that whose only fault, being a British production of a story that should (properly) shame the British is, is that events in Maruge's later life which would have made Americans sit up, were not reproduced on screen. They're reduced to a sentence or two of text and, frankly, that reveal is something we would have really wanted to see. We don't know why the filmmakers stopped short, but they did.
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