A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What 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
- Studio: National Geographic
- Genre: Drama
- Run time: 103 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG-13
- MPAA explanation: some disturbing violent content and brief nudity
- Last updated: February 20, 2020
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