In 2003, when the Kenyan government offered free education to all citizens, an 84-year-old villager showed up at the gates of his local primary school. Kimani N'gan'ga Maruge (Litondo) may be illiterate, but he knows his rights, and eventually convinces head teacher Jane Obinchu (Harris) to let him learn beside students eight decades his junior. His story eventually draws international media attention, provoking the suspicions of his jealous neighbors and stoking pent-up tribalism. Suddenly a posterboy and social pariah, celebrity and pupil, the embattled octogenarian finds himself haunted by his - and the country's - tragic past.
Though this true-life tale steers clear of black-versus-white postcolonialist dichotomies - other than the jackboot British soldiers who haunt Maruge's daydreams, this is an all-African affair - The First Grader still manages to steamroll through moral and political complexities. Director Justin Chadwick (The Other Boleyn Girl) and screenwriter Ann Peacock pile on the conflicts but don't trust the audience to deal with more than one side of an argument, pitting sainted Maruge and his righteous teacher against an inflexible administration, the impassive government and witch-hunting townspeople. A lot of history gets horned into this undeniably inspirational parable, though slick execution and simplistic storytelling make it a lesson suitable only for easily impressed primary school students.