In 2004, an 84-year-old Kenyan man wandered up to his local rural school house and asked to be admitted. After a bit of a struggle with school officials, the persistent — if a little stubborn — man was allowed to participate in a first-grade class, making him the oldest person ever to enroll in school.
The real life story of Kimani N’gan’ga Maruge is the subject of British director Justin Chadwick’s feature film. The movie wraps together the story of Maruge’s late-life education with the backstory of the older man’s experiences in the Mau Mau Uprising, the 1950s Kenyan rebellion that set the stage for that country’s independence from British colonial rule. In the movie we learn that Margue’s family was killed by British forces and that he endured years in a prison camp because of his participation. In 2003, when the Kenyan government passed a law allowing free primary education for all of its citizens, Maruge saw his education as the last hurdle in his lifelong struggle for freedom.
The struggle in Maruge’s education, as it turns out, doesn’t come from his studies, but rather the controversy over allowing such an old man to take a student’s seat in the class. Beneath this outrage over Maruge’s attendance runs a veiled streak of residual tribal tension, and teacher Jane Obinchu (Naomie Harris) finds herself in the middle as Maruge’s advocate.
Oliver Litondo turns in an impassioned, moving performance as the world’s oldest pupil, and it is his performance that draws us in. But there is something too ardent about the storytelling here that makes The First Grader limited in its singular drive to inspire.