The First Grader (Justin Chadwick, 2010)

02Apr11

Naomie Harris (Jane Obinchu), Oliver Litondo (Kimani Maruge). Screenplay by Ann Peacock. Directed by Justin Chadwick. Running time: 120 minutes.

Kimani Maruge’s life is quite inspiring. It’s hard to resist the tale of an eighty year old Kenyan man fighting for the right to a primary school education, succeeding, and ending up speaking at the United Nations. Not only this, but this final chapter of his life came after originally fighting hard against us, the British, for his country’s right to independence. This is an incredible true story, and given it’s the material that The First Grader gets to play with, the film should have been a beautiful and tragic emotional journey. And yet it is, and it also isn’t. It succeeds insofar as when you have content like this, it’s hard to go wrong. However the film’s quality unfolded, we would always be able to discern the power of the history lying behind. And yet that’s also precisely the film’s problem: I think I would have been equally moved and touched by reading a newspaper’s obituary after Kimani’s death, and that’s bad news when a medium combining image, dialogue and music cannot pack a punch greater than a journalist’s pen.

There’s nothing hideously bad here. If you turn the cliché alert off and allow yourself to be emotionally manipulated in the cheap way Hollywood loves to with Nicholas Sparks novels, there’s sweet laughs to be had at the cuteness of it all, and easy empathy with Kimani’s traumatic, tortured past. The problem is merely the all too blatant attempts to drag these reactions out of us. The filmmakers here decided to redefine the scope of the artistic licence, fabricating far too many farfetched scenes that unnecessarily and counterproductively push us towards feeling the Kenyan’s painful past. I’m glad I watched The First Grader. I would never have been alerted to its underlying truth were it not for the film, and what happened to inspire it is worth knowing. But as a film, rather than simply a capsule for historical discovery, it’s hugely disrespectful to us in its excessive attempts to force sympathy. And that’s a shame, because if depicted more naturally, we would have felt for Kimani’s struggle anyway.

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