Review: The First Grader

Review: The First Grader

Ed Whitfield writes for Bleeding Cool:

As an imperialist I'm often asked the question, 'Ed, don't you feel guilty about being an apologist for crimes against humanity, degrading and inhuman treatment, and the rape and exploitation of indigenous peoples by those acting in your name?' to which I tend to reply, 'it's always a half empty glass with you, isn't it?'
Some however, do feel contrition for Britain's colonial endeavours, and though we may pity them, we cannot deny their commitment to the cause. The BBC, the cultural standard bearer for the nation, has funded this reconciliation and redemption drama. Its rasion d'etre is education; not simply that of the Maruge, the former Mau Mau seditionist, who's keen at 84 to take advantage of the Kenyan government's open door policy on school admissions and learn to read, but also ours. Shouldn't the home crowd know more about the Mau Mau uprising and their bloody fight for independence from British rule? That sounds like treasonous talk to me.

Of course no one likes to present a balanced account of these histories. There's timidity about highlighting that moral lapses occurred on both sides. There's a trend to refocus history, so that it becomes a binary tale of oppressor and oppressed, rather than the shades of grey that you and I know to characterise real life. In a story like this one, where audience sympathy is contingent upon identification with the old man and his fight for freedom, that's both figuratively, emancipation by literacy and literally, in flashbacks to his struggle as a separatist, then it won't do to talk about Kikuyu rebels being inviolate of their own culture and beliefs, brutalising the elderly, decapitating children, slicing open pregnant women and recreating scenes from their favourite Shakespeare plays in the gouging of eyes.

Still, all's fair in love and war, and why confuse the audience by staking out morally ambiguous territory, when it's easier to focus exclusively on British atrocities? Justin Chadwick, very much hoping to atone for the sins of the father, not literally of course, no need to issue a writ, effectively recreates the horrors of the colonial government's tide-stemming exercises. In a series of understated flashbacks, Chadwick shows a young Maruge being having his ear drums perforated with a pencil, the first of a series of scenes that utilises the associative device of linking a benign object from the present with a more painful version from the past, then going on to depict the grotesque murder of his wife and baby while he helplessly looks on; it's a frank and matter of fact example of the attitude of British troops to the so called "Mickeys". Uncle Walt should have sued.

Chadwick's film may show trepidation when it comes to showing the moral vacuum that existed on both sides, and the British may even consider their treatment of the locals sanitised, as the use of concentration camps doesn't feature, but it's more successful in touching upon the tensions that still exist in Kenyan society, particularly old animosity between tribes on both sides of the conflict. "The past is always present" notes the loyalist Chairman of Education, and you don't doubt it when his attitude toward the wizened student is informed by equally aged prejudices, rather than learned principles.

Oliver Litondo is suitably affecting in the title role, riffling off the experience of his real world counterpart with great subtly and emotion. It's hard not to root for him and equally hard not to wonder about Naomie Harris' primary school teacher. Noble as Harris is, one wonders why someone committed to empowerment through education should initially begrudge the elderly applicant his opportunity. Perhaps in reality, she was immediately welcoming, but as this is a movie, I suppose there has to be an obstacle to overcome, hence the arbitrary obstacles placed in the old man's way.

Harris's teacher is also not too quick on the uptake when it comes to spotting a student with learning difficulties. Pastoral care might not have been the priority in 90s Kenya, but surely to God, an experienced teacher knows mild dyslexia when she sees it?

The First Grader is an effective, if underpowered drama, that induces the requisite amount of shame for British audiences, as well as stirring their compassion for its inspirational subject. It's worst cinematic crimes are those familiar to audiences attuned to film conventions intruding upon the story's truths. You may wonder, for example, why a true story has such a rigid three act structure or why you're permitted to see a young woman have her brains blown out but not a man's flaccid penis. Filmmakers, in a curious mirror to The First Grader's subject matter, sometimes feel compelled to treat their audience like children. Read into that what you will.

The First Grader is released across the UK tomorrow, Friday 24th June.