THE FIRST GRADER
By Gary Murray
Starring Naomie Harris and Oliver Litondo
Written by Ann Peacock
Directed by Justin Chadwick
Running time 103 min
MPAA Rating PG-13
Selig Film Rating Matinee
Living in suburban America, one becomes a bit complacent about the rest of the world. School barely discusses the events that happen beyond the shores. One just never hears about the unrest that tears countries apart. The background of such an African conflict is the new Justin Chadwick film The First Grader.
The story of The First Grader is of Manuge (Oliver Litondo). He is a Mau Mau warrior who fought for the freedom of his country. One day on the radio, it is announced that free education will be provided. Manuge shows up to learn to read and write. The school doesn’t know what to do, so they tell him to leave. He shows up again the next day even more determined to get inside.
Eventually the teacher Jane (Naomie Harris) relents. Her class now becomes the center of unwanted focus. There are rumors of something more between student and teacher. Many of the tribesmen do not understand Manuge and his quest.
As the rest of the world hears of the Mau Mau warrior, the media descends—yet another problem in the school. Combined with this tale are the flashbacks of Manuge and his struggles to get to this point. The struggles include physical torture. The film blends different elements to a confrontation at the school.
The performance of Manuge is single most important role of The First Grader and the unknown Oliver Litondo captures every element needed for the character. He is proud and heartbroken, willful and kind. It is the right mix of different elements that build to an outstanding performance.
Naomie Harris is probably best known for her performances in Pirates of the Caribbean. This is a much different and more complex role. By standing up for Manuge, she is taking a place away from a child who craves education. The choices she has to make in The First Grader are not easy ones, the respect for the elders against the promise of youth.
Director Justin Chadwick (The Other Boleyn Sister) takes on this true tale with purposeful zeal. Crafting the Ann Peacock screenplay, he shows the great battles of life are fought on some of the smallest of battlefields.
This is a definite Art House film and the major appeal lies there. It is an interesting film about an area of humanity the US audience seldom even hears about, much less sees on a motion picture. It has a definite heart and tells a compelling tale.