The First Grader
By Sandie Angulo Chen,
Common Sense Media Reviewer
Common Sense Media Reviewers
Inspiring true story has some violent wartime flashbacks.
A Lot or a Little?
What you will—and won't—find in this movie.
Maruge's struggle to learn and overcome the atrocities of the past is an impactful lesson for teens. He realizes it's never too late to educate himself, and he's finally able to come to terms with everything that had been taken from him as a younger man. Jane Obinchu's role reminds viewers that it's important to be an advocate for the disadvantaged, even if it's difficult. The message that we have a lot to learn from each other is expressed in a touching manner.
Positive Role Models
Maruge endures verbal taunts and physical threats to attend primary school, as does his headmistress, Ms. Obinchu, for accepting him in the public program. She convinces her husband of the importance of teaching Maruge to read, even though it's unorthodox and there are already too many students at the school. They both refuse to be intimidated because they believe in the power of literacy and each other's ability to teach and learn.
Violence & Scariness
In flashbacks, viewers see the Mau Mau raid a British farm, where shots ring out and a man and woman are killed; the tribe is then shot at (with many killed) as they retreat. A much younger Maruge is captured and tortured in various ways (which is when there's a brief shot backside as he's strung upside down). In one harrowing scene, he's forced to watch as horrific things happen to his family (they take place off camera, but viewers know what's happening). There's also some rioting against the school to intimidate them to get rid of Maruge, who uses his walking stick to defend himself against much younger men.
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Sex, Romance & Nudity
A married couple hug, kiss, and cuddle a couple of times. In flashback, a man remembers his beautiful wife, who is wearing revealing tribal clothes.
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Some hurtful insult language like "whore," "old man," "stupid," "liar," and the like. Subtitles include derogatory comments about the British colonialists, the loyalists, and the Mau Mau.
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Drinking, Drugs & Smoking
A group of drunk older men passing around a bottle is shown several times as Maruge walks to and from school.
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Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that although this docudrama -- which is based on the true story of the oldest recorded student ever to attend primary school, 84-year-old Kenyan villager Kigani Maruge -- is uplifting and touching, the flashbacks to his past as an imprisoned member of the Mau Mau insurrection are disturbingly violent. The worst of it isn't shown directly (scenes instead focus on close-ups or other people in the room), but it's clear what's happening. And Maruge is shown being tortured (strung upside down, pierced in the ear with sharpened pencils, and forced to watch as his family is harmed), and others are killed. Other than the violence, there's nothing teens can't handle, but the flashbacks will be too intense for tweens. Because of its historical elements, the movie provides a good opportunity to discuss issues related to education and colonialism.
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What's the Story?
In 2003, the Kenyan government began a free primary-school education program for all. THE FIRST GRADER is set in a remote Kenyan village, where 84-year-old Kimani Maruge (Oliver Litondo) decides that he no longer wants to be illiterate and attempts to enroll. The school's principal, Jane Obinchu (Naomie Harris), politely declines because there are too many pupils enrolled, but Maruge -- a former political prisoner who's still plagued with memories of his capture and torture at the hands of the British -- is persistent, even buying the official boy's uniform of a sweater, collared shirt, shorts, and knee socks to prove his determination. He wants to learn to read so he can finally decode an important letter sent to him by the government. Obinchu relents, and Maruge joins the first-grade class, much to the resentment of a few of the local parents and the government superintendent. Overcoming physical threats and nasty gossip, Obinchu enlists the press to aid her in promoting the importance of Maruge's education.
Is It Any Good?
Director Justin Chadwick lovingly depicts the story of an old man who recognizes his last shot at learning. That said, The First Grader isn't always an easy film to watch. Slowly paced and featuring lots of subtitled dialogue, the story unfolds almost like a documentary or TV special, not a gripping drama. And, like Hotel Rwanda, there are scenes of violence and torture that, while not bloody, are horrifying. But it's undeniably uplifting, and Litondo -- with his walking stick ever ready to poke some oppressor in the shins -- is quite a compelling actor.
Although they're difficult to see, the horrors of the past are necessary to witness, because they explain why a man like Maruge would have waited a lifetime to become literate. If an 84-year-old can be a first grader, the movie posits, no one should ever feel embarrassed by trying to learn something later than others, and that's the sort of feel-good lesson every viewer could use.
Talk to Your Kids About ...
Families can talk about the movie's message about the importance of literacy and education. Does age have anything to do with wanting to learn? Why does Ms. Obinchu give Maruge a chance when others have written him off as an old man who's about to die?
How would the movie have been different if the director hadn't shown the violence Maruge endured earlier in his life? Do you think those scenes are necessary to the story?
- In theaters: May 13, 2011
- On DVD or streaming: December 27, 2011
- Cast: Naomie Harris, Oliver Litondo, Tony Kgoroge
- Director: Justin Chadwick
- Inclusion Information: Black actors
- Studio: National Geographic
- Genre: Drama
- Run time: 103 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG-13
- MPAA explanation: some disturbing violent content and brief nudity
- Last updated: October 8, 2022
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