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WARNING: SCOWLING SPOILERS
Kimani N'gan'ga Maruge (Oliver Litondo) is a 84-year-old Kenyan man, a former Mau Mau warrior who, we learn in gauzy, slow-motion flashbacks, was captured by British colonialists and loyalists in the 1950s, imprisoned, tortured, and forced to watch his wife and children slaughtered before his eyes, all because he refused to give up the idea of Kenyan independence, which came about, while he was incarcerated, in 1963.
In modern-day Kenya, Maruge (pronounced: Ma-roo-gay) hears on the radio how the government is offering free education to everybody. The implication is “every...child” but Maruge doesn’t hear the implication. So he goes to his nearby, overcrowded schoolhouse, run by Jane Obinchu (Naomie Harris of “Pirates of the Caribbean” fame), and demands his free education. He wants, he says, to learn to read.
On the first day he’s turned away. On the second day, Jane, over the objections of a straight-arrow teacher and administrator, lets him into her classroom, where, because of hearing problems (the British once burst his eardrum with a sharpened pencil), he has to sit in the front row. One would think this would cause a problem for the student or students sitting behind him, since they’d have trouble seeing, but it’s actually the student next to him, a cute boy who scowls, and who draws his 5s backwards, who resents the intrusion. Why? Perhaps because he’s the son of the scowling man in the village who resents Maruge for no earthly reason.
That’s the set up. Charming old man wants to learn to read—in order to read, himself, a letter he received long ago from the President of Kenya. Beautiful teacher wants to help. Others scowl and plot.
First, the local superintendent, Mr. Kipruto (Vusi Kunene) objects on fairly logical grounds. The school only has so many resources; it should be focusing on the future, which is the kids, rather than the past, which is the charming old man. Unfortunately, the superintendent is not attractive, talks in a blustery voice, and dresses in the faded brown leisure suits of the 1970s. So much for him.
When Maruge’s story breaks into the western press, the other villagers, out of jealousy, begin to object, and the scowling man, sensing his opening, pays others to lead an assault on the little schoolroom where Maruge is learning. It’s also where his own son is learning. Ah well. Moot point anyway. Maruge drives away half a dozen men with his cane.
At this point Jane begins to receive threatening phone calls, so she convinces her boyfriend, Charles Obinchu (Tony Kgoroge), to leave the big city, and his job, whatever it is, and return to her side. He does. Then he begins to get threatening phone calls, divisive phone calls, phone calls that insist Jane is a whore who is running around behind his back. Will these people, whoever they are, stop at nothing?
Finally, Superintendent Kipruto has Jane transferred to another village. Mr. Kipruto then leads a celebratory, dancing welcome for the new teacher, who is fatter and less attractice than Jane; but the schoolkids lock the gates and pelt the adults, including the new teacher, with objects, and chant “We want sister Jane” over and over.
But sister Jane doesn’t return.
So Maruge sells his pet goat to take a van to Nairobi, where, en route, we see billboards with Maruge on them, extolling education, and where, in Nairobi, he insists upon seeing the Minister of Education. For some reason, the fact that he’s Maruge, the guy from the billboards, isn’t enough to get him into the Minister’s office. So he sneaks past a secretary, bursts into an ongoing meeting, strips to his waist, shows off the scars on his back that he received in helping gain their independence, and basically shames everyone into listening to him. He makes a plea for Jane. “Bring her back,” he says.
Afterwards we get a montage of schoolwork—Margue guiding the kids as best he can—and then a fade to black.
Then fade in. And there’s Jane, coming through the gates again, smiling and holding out her arms! They won!
But aren’t the village neighbors still jealous and angry? Isn’t the scowling man still scowling? Isn’t the superintendent even angrier than before?
Yes, but... they won! Now Margue can learn to read. And now he will finally be able to read the letter the President of Kenya sent him long ago, and he’ll be able to do it on his own, as he always wanted to do. That’s what this whole story is about, after all.
Except then he brings the letter to Jane, and tells her, “It is too hard. You must read it for me.”
Wait—come again? Wasn't the point of all of this drama so you could do this one thing that you now say you can't do? Yet without blinking, without the movie blinking, she does it for him.
So what mysterious things are in the letter we’ve waited the entire movie to hear? Well, the President of Kenya thanks Maruge for his service to his country; he also says Kenya is now independent because of people like him. Then Jane looks at him with proud, shining eyes, and he looks at her with proud, shining eyes, and the soundtrack gives us more of that generic African music, and we fade to a shot of the real Maruge, who died in 2009, and that’s the movie.
“The First Grader,” written by Ann Peacock, born in Cape Town, South Africa, and directed by Justin Chadwick, born in Manchester, England (England), contains odd echoes of Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing,” too: the local DJ intoning, “My people, my people...” before each pronouncment; the fun-loving, trash-talking crew hanging on the village corner. It also opened the 2011 Seattle International Film Festival. Why? I assume two words won over the directors of the festival: “African” and “uplifting.” It’s African, and thus third world, so it must be meaningful; and it’s uplifting, so, to western moviegoers, it’s accessible.
But it’s a nothing film. Who is Maruge? A good man. Who is Jane? A good woman. Who is the superintendent? A bad man. Who is that poor teacher who gets stoned on her first day of class? Who knows? Maruge may learn to read here but we learn nothing.
May 23, 2011
© 2011 Erik Lundegaard