With its noble African spirit and picturesque, violent savannah, Justin Chadwick’s The First Grader may be historical tourism, but it’s cine-colonialism with a good heart.
The White African by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers.
Based on a newspaper article in Los Angeles Times, The First Grader is a heartfelt testimony to the fighting spirit of one man, Kimani Ng’ang’a Maruge, who took part in the Mau Mau Uprising of 1953 and who in 2004 became the oldest primary school pupil in the world. It wasn’t exactly what the Kenyan government expected when they announced free education for all in 2003, and it’s his right to an education as well as the local backlash against co-combatant and school teacher Jane Obinchu that provides the film with its heartstring-tugging backbone. Producers Sam Feuer and Richard Harding may have acquired the rights to Maruge’s story, quickly co-opting an equally passionate screenwriter in Ann Peacock basking in the afterglow from The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe, but should its post-colonial story of Kenya’s traumatic past, its present hardships and its ardent hopes for the future really be left up to a mzungu?
Like Stephen Daldry’s The Reader, there’s an unshakeable feeling that Justin Chadwick’s The First Grader isn’t quite authentic enough, that this story is too African for an outsider. Admittedly, there have been plenty of reputable precursors, like Fernando Meirelles’ The Constant Gardener or Clint Eastwood’s Invictus, to name but two, which romped their way to Oscar contendership. And a cynical producer could hope the same for The First Grader. But despite its textural delights and exceptional performances, it can’t help but stumble over its shoddy Hollywood script. There are elements of great authenticity, like the real Mau Mau resistance songs gathered via a crewmember’s grandma or the plain-acting kids who are so charming they’re given their own credits sequence of outtakes and whose playground songs litter the soundtrack.
In his first leading role, Seventies anchorman Oliver Litondo also does an exceptional job, faithfully inhabiting Maruge’s traumatic past and his yearning for learning with a bittersweet gravitas. But The First Grader never quite gets to grips with its colonial wounds. It’s happy to expose the violence of the British, with savage whippings, eardrum-busting torture and brutal executions, but prison internment is too easily identified with holocaust semiotics, the etched numbers on a metal bracelet standing in for an inked tattoo. Not an eyebrow is raised at the lessons taught in English or the school uniforms of colonial shirts and shorts.
There’s an African exoticism to Maruge’s flashbacks of his wife, an indigenous beauty against the lush green cornfield, and a mzungu’s fear of black violence in the local furore at Maruge’s attendance and the dirty phone calls Jane and her husband endure. Africans are both roughnecks and victims, and as the camera lingers pitifully on the students’ faces, there’s an emotional manipulation that these kids need more than just an education. A Western superstructure overwhelms their gestures and speech, from Jane’s verandah talk and “executive decisions” to an ill-thought-out school-bashing in the layabout adult education centre, and there’s more than just a nagging doubt this isn’t Kenya any more.
It’s a script with more signposts than the M25, but with its heart firmly in the right place. Maruge’s motivation – to read a letter from the Kenyan government offering compensation (and recognition) for his internment in four prison camps during the Mau Mau Uprising achieves fruition. Literate, he’s human. Finally more than an illiterate goat. But it’s a personal conquest steeped in national gratitude for a war hero, a warden of justice assuring the education of Kenya’s schoolchildren as they fade into a future forest. Its Dead Poets’ Society bent feels worn, and Justin Chadwick’s film lacks the observational detail a Kenyan might bring. But with its charming schoolkids and heart on its uniformed sleeve, The First Grader conjurs up an epic, emotional sweep, its African sunshine enough to warm the coldest hearts.
The First Grader is released in the UK on 24th June 2011