In the new National Geographic film, “The First Grader,” director Justin Chadwick combines the story of one man’s fight for freedom with his fight for education.
Based on a true story, the film seems more like an award winning documentary than a production.
Actors Naomie Harris and Oliver Litondo excel in their roles to portray the situation in Kenya.
The film opens with subtle introductory music, immersing the viewer into the culture.
Throughout the film, the music reminds viewers of the location.
Set in Kenya, “The First Grader” demonstrates not only the nation’s past, but also an individual take on a new law.
According to the 84-year-old main character, Kimani Ng’ang’a Maruge (Litondo), education is more than the ability to read or write. To him, it is a reward and repayment for his loss and struggles as a Mau Mau veteran.
He fights continually for his right to education. At first, he is repeatedly turned away from the school. Then he faces opposition from many. Eventually, the favorite teacher is forced to leave the school. He travels to the Ministry of Education in hopes to bring her back, showing them the scars of his past.
Chadwick provides a clear insight on Maruge’s intentions, as his past weaves throughout the film, acting as one of many subplots in the overall story. This adds a unique element to the film with such a simplistic title.
Although the title appears to be basic, “The First Grader” ironically appeals to an older, more mature audience since scenes include some brutality and nudity. It certainly is not a happy story from beginning to end. Maruge’s past is nostalgic, dramatic, and horrifying, bringing tears to the eyes of those around the theater.
While some scenes prove difficult to watch, the film as a whole excels. The message is clear, the story is engaging, and the end brings an uplifting message. Teachers truly impact the lives of their students, as Jane Obinchu (Harris) does for Maruge.
The combination of drama and success drives viewers into realizing the importance of education. As his only goal is to read a letter that was sent to him, Maruge demonstrates this necessity. Faced with opposing government, parents of young students, and the press, he rebukes all statements by saying, “The power is in the pen.”
Such a bold statement is backed throughout the film, and despite the deep thematic elements, the audience leaves as though they had just watched a “feel-good” film.
This bright ending can be attributed to the fact that Maruge makes a difference for not only his country, but many around the world.
The radio DJ who initially announces the free elementary education celebrates Maruge’s invitation to speak at the United Nations.
Running at 103 minutes long, every second is a valuable learning experience worth the time and emotional investment.