Ultimately, The First Grader, directed by Justin Chadwick, is exactly what you want it to be: an uplifting story about the power of perseverance and the healing powers of understanding. It’s based on the true story of an ex Mau Mau who fought for Kenya’s freedom from British colonial rule. As an 84-year-old man, he faces a new struggle: learning to read. Holding his government to its promise to provide “free education for all,” Kimani N’gan’ga Margue seeks to become a student at an elementary school, to finally receive the schooling colonialism and poverty denied him.
The film illustrates the importance of teachers driven by ideals. Naomie Harris plays the dedicated and perhaps preternaturally patient head teacher Jane, who faces her set of difficulties and personal challenges when confronted by this unusual student.
The violence of the fight for independence interrupts both the narrative on screen and into Margue’s concentration on his school work, a reminder that colonialism’s legacy lingers on many levels. The film does not shy away from the uglier side of the British attempts to suppress the rebellion, a theme that echos through narratives of liberation from Algeria to South Africa. It’s a tough journey to The First Grader‘s conclusion, but this makes the film’s message all the more rewarding.