Published May 19, 2011I've been trying to decide if The First Grader is the most heavy-handed and patronizing movie ever made or if it's just been too long since I last watched Schindler's List. Seriously, it's been awhile since I had someone so overtly shove their pedantic piety down my throat that I felt compelled to have a tearful, violated Ace Ventura shower while listening to death metal to drown out the endless melodramatic string section of emotional manipulation playing in my head.
Surely, this true story of 84-year-old Kenyan villager and ex-Mau Mau freedom fighter Kimani N'gan'ga Maruge (Oliver Litondo) going back to grade school (the first grade, as per the title) will be described as "uplifting," "heartfelt" and "inspiring" by the complacent keen on being told how to think and feel for two hours of their life. And, to be fair, it probably will be "uplifting" to many ― primarily those that feel like better people for passively attaching themselves to an issue and feeling informed when offered biased headline snippets.
With close-up images of smiling, humble villagers and oh-so-precious children studying the alphabet, Justin Chadwick's touchingly bland spectacle focuses its attention partly on Maruge's adventures in a grade-school Xanadu, but is more interested in the struggles had by Jane Obinchu (Naomie Harris), the teacher that defied an administration by letting the old man into her classroom.
Receiving constant threats from villagers pissed about her seeming agenda and living in the centre of a media circus, her inner-battle of morality and ideals in the face of various conflicting ideologues and contradictory perspectives (what if every uneducated old person decided to attend public school?) could actually make for a thematically rich tapestry expanding upon the changing political climate of Kenya. Furthermore, it could work as a mirrored sociological battle with the Mau Mau fight for Kenyan independence against British Colonialists, acting as a reminder of history and the importance of remembering to avoid repetition.
But Justin Chadwick is far more interested in making its villains cartoonish and its protagonist saintly, juxtaposing wartime atrocity flashbacks with modern images of a strong, smiling, idealized old man doling out exceedingly articulate wise words and acting as an inspiration to the children of a new generation.
We're never challenged to think about the present as a reflection of the past or even explore human conflict with any sort of depth, since every single shot, moment and image tells us exactly what to think and how to feel with the utmost condescension. (Maple)