“The past is always present,” says one character midway through Justin Chadwick’s The First Grader, commenting both on the importance that history plays in the film’s contemporary setting and Chadwick and screenwriter Ann Peacock’s penchant for moldy sentiments and moldier filmmaking. Although the above quotation refers specifically to the continued animosity between Kenyan tribes that dates back to the colonial period, it applies just as readily to the lens through which 84-year-old Kimani Ng’ang’a Maruge (Oliver Musila Litondo) views the present. A Mau-Mau who fought the British for his country’s independence only to wind up imprisoned for a decade in concentration camps, Maruge is constantly beset by memories of the past, which Chadwick doles out via flashback in bite-sized chunks until the man’s tale of woe is revealed in all its wretchedness.
Besides making unimaginative use of the delayed reveal, these historical glimpses combine a dull lyricism with elliptical views of atrocity that have the dubious job of setting us up for the kicker, a head-on shot of murder set to a round of isn’t-this-horrible strings on the soundtrack. What these shots also do is endow the octogenarian with unimpeachable moral authority, a quality he’ll need in order to fulfill his goal of going to school and learning how to read. Despite heavy opposition from the administrators, Maruge enrolls in his local primary school—an overcrowded tin shack—after the government passes a law allowing for free universal education. With the help of strong-willed teacher Jane Obinchu (Naomie Harris) who fights to keep him in class, he begins to learn his ABCs side by side with a roomful of tots.
“We are nothing if we cannot read,” Maruge declares in one of the film’s numerous talking points, “we are useless.” And if the murder of his wife and children and endless rounds of torture didn’t deter him from his goal of a free Kenya, then a few school administrators and a round of angry parents certainly won’t dissuade him from this more modest task. Still, he wouldn’t stand a chance without Jane and just as the film presents Maruge as a stubborn old cuss whose dedication and correctness of purpose can’t be questioned, so his teacher is portrayed as an ideal educator, gentle with her students and unflagging in her efforts to keep her eldest pupil on, eventually hiring him as an assistant teacher. There’s very little tension in these characterizations. Maruge and Jane are meant to stand as exemplary individuals, not as full-blooded people, and if the film largely refrains from milking the gushy sentiment inherent in this inspirational purpose for most of its running time, you can bet that it makes up for it at the end, when the two heroes, along with their loving students, are united in one all-encompassing group hug.