An inspiring narrative of humanity—of strength, values, and triumph—The First Grader should attract humanists in droves, perhaps especially secular humanists (i.e., atheists with hearts), since its messages are entirely secular. The story is all the more relevant for being “Based on a true story.”
Directed by Justin Chadwick, it stars Oliver Musila Litondo as the Kenyan revolutionary (a former member of the Mau Mau rebellion) named Kimani Ng’ang’a Marunge, who helped gain freedom from British colonizers half a century ago and now, at age 84, has returned to school determined to learn to read. He has heard the government of Kenya’s promises of universal free education.
When Marunge is at first refused admission to his village school—suffering the giggles of children and the admonitions of school officials—he insists, “I heard on the radio with my own ears, they said everybody!” He begins to turn the tables, teaching the teachers about fairness—and persistence: Refused entry for not wearing a school uniform, Marunge adapts some used clothing, polishes old shoes, and shows up again, propelled by his walking stick. Soon he has won over both the staff and the children, who adore him as a grandfatherly figure.
Yet all is not well. Marunge suffers flashbacks of the killing of his family and of his own torture. Worse, he is mocked by idle folk, and—when the press descends on the school, along with opportunistic officials—the principal (played by Naomie Harris) is accused of gaining payoffs. She receives phoned abuse and threats and is treated to a campaign of rumors.
Events come to a head when she is summarily transferred far away. Now it is the first graders who rebel—including the octogenarian pupil. He puts on a suit, travels to the capital of Nairobi, and barges in on a meeting of education officials. Baring his back, he forces them to look at the grotesque scars he received in fighting for freedom. Meanwhile, the other first graders drive off the replacement principal until—well, see for yourself how matters are resolved.
The movie’s own curriculum goes far beyond teaching the rewards of education, offering profound lessons about character and the indomitable human spirit.
Rating: Three wooden nickels (out of four)