05/13/2011 11:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

ReThink Review: The First Grader -- Reading, Writing and Rebellion

The First Grader tells the true story of Kimani Maruge, an 84-year-old veteran of Kenya's Mau Mau Uprising who enrolled in the first grade when the Kenyan government announced that it would make an elementary school education free to all, earning Maruge a place in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world's oldest primary school student. If it had been released during Oscar season, The First Grader could very well be the type of dark horse small film that seemingly appears out of nowhere to snag major nominations, especially for Oliver Litondo, the Kenyan former anchorman who plays Maruge, and Naomie Harris, who plays the principal of the school he attends.

Beautifully shot on location in Kenya at a rural school with the students who go there, The First Grader is the kind of small, inspirational, feel-good true story of triumph over adversity that helped make The King's Speech such a hit with audiences and critics, paving its way to four Oscars and twelve nominations. And like The King's Speech, The First Grader also shines a light on a piece of history many are unfamiliar with -- the Mau Mau Uprising (sometimes called the Kenya Emergency), where members of the Kikuyu tribe rebelled against their British colonial masters from 1952 to 1960.

But with only a limited release and little/no marketing, audiences and the Academy are in danger of missing a wonderful, moving, often funny film that is probably the best movie I've seen so far this year. Watch my review of The First Grader for What the Flick?! below, which also mentions the recent kerfuffle when conservative and potential presidential candidate Mike Huckabee made the false claims that Barack Obama grew up in Kenya and that his grandfather was involved in the Mau Mau uprising, leading Obama to hold un-American views about the British.


We're not halfway through 2011 yet, but I already have a frontrunner for best actor and maybe best picture. No, I don't mean The Beaver and anti-semitic, racist, woman-hitter Mel Gibson. I'm talking about Oliver Litondo, a Kenyan former news anchorman who had only played minor roles before being cast in The First Grader, a film based on the true story of Kimani N'gan'ga Maruge, an 84-year-old villager and veteran of the Mau Mau Uprising who, in 2003, enrolled as a first grader after the Kenyan government announced that they were making an elementary school education free to all.

Filmed on location in a rural Kenyan school full of non-actor students, The First Grader follows Maruge as he attempts to enroll in school so he can learn to read. Maruge faces ridicule for his age, accusations of taking a spot from deserving children, and stern refusals from school administrators. But Maruge won't give up, even fashioning an adult version of the school uniform, and finds an ally in the school's principal Jane Obinchu, played by British actress Naomie Harris, who is impressed by Maruge's persistence and is able to bend some rules to get him into the classroom.

As word gets out about Maruge, opposition to his presence grows, with agitators coming to the school and Jane becoming the target of threats and nasty rumors. At the same time, journalists from around the world descend on the school to learn more about the world's oldest first grader, making Maruge a national celebrity and a spokesman for the importance of education. School and government officials are happy for the publicity, but they continue trying to kick Maruge out, even going so far as having Jane transferred, causing Maruge to travel to Nairobi to get her back.

Throughout The First Grader, we learn more about Maruge's involvement in the Mau Mau Uprising of the 1950s, when members of the Kikuyu tribe began a violent rebellion against the British colonizers who had stolen their land and denied them their rights. Maruge teaches his fellow students about the importance of the rebellion and the struggle for land and freedom, but he is still haunted by the crimes of the British and the torture he endured in a British prison camp.

If the term Mau Mau sounds familiar, it might be because earlier this year, deceptively nice-seeming conservative whack-job and potential presidential candidate Mike Huckabee claimed that Barack Obama had been raised in Kenya, his grandfather was involved in the Mau Mau Uprising, and that because of this, Obama holds an anti-American dislike of the British. Naturally, all three of these claims were LIES, since Obama never lived in Kenya, his grandfather wasn't Mau Mau and lived in a part of Kenya far from the rebellion, and, of course, there's no evidence that Obama has an anti-British bias.

A spokesperson for Huckabee later claimed that he had "misspoken" for the several minutes he spent explaining why Obama hates white people, claiming that Huckabee meant to say that Obama grew up in Indonesia, even though the Mau Mau uprising didn't happen there. So I'm sure it had nothing to do with appealing to racist Teabaggers and linking Obama to a scary, foreign-sounding term like Mau Mau.

But it's true that Obama's grandfather held a grudge against the British, maybe because he had worked for the British army during World War II, but was later imprisoned and tortured by the British for two years without a conviction. And maybe Obama's dim view of British colonialism has to do with its brutal history in Africa and its centuries of pillaging, enslaving, and murdering all the brown people it could find.

The First Grader
is only playing in limited release, and the chances of the Academy recognizing, remembering or even seeing Litondo's stellar performance are slim. But The First Grader is a beautiful, amazing film that doesn't just move, inspire AND make you laugh, but puts a human face on the lingering effects of colonialism. And at a time when republicans are doing everything they can to punish and demonize teachers, The First Grader is an important testament to the power of education to transform lives and even nations, which is why I'm giving The First Grader my first 10 of the year. Seriously, do yourself a favor and find this movie. I'm Jonathan Kim for What the Flick.