Elementary, by David Bax
Here in the United States, the term “white guilt” generally refers to Americans of European descent feeling repentant for their ancestors’ enslavement of Africans and other black people or occasionally for the genocide of the Native Americans. Well, it turns out that in England, a place made up of actual Europeans, they have plenty of white guilt too.
Director Justin Chadwick (The Other Boleyn Girl) clearly suffers from plenty of it, as evidenced by his new film, The First Grader, in which any hint of nuance that might have existed in the occupation of Kenya by the British and their violent struggles with bands of freedom fighters is excised from the story. Apparently, the very notion that the British occupiers were anything but cruel and heartless villains is unthinkable to Chadwick and his screenwriter, Ann Peacock. While this self-flagellation is probably good for plenty of diplomatic and karmic points, it makes for a pretty boring movie.
The story here is a true one. In 2002, the Kenyan government decreed that primary education would be free to all and an 84-year-old villager who could neither read nor write decided to take them at their word. Joining an already crowded first grade class at that late stage in life may be heartwarming from a distance but it stirred controversy in the village, among parents who thought resources were being wasted on someone who was close to death anyway. Add to that the fact that, as a former Mau Mau revolutionary who fought and then was imprisoned by the British, this man, Kimani N’gan’ga Maruge, was already something of a controversial figure and you’ve got what could be the makings of a good movie. Except that Chadwick and Peacock are largely uninterested in Maruge, except as a symbol for the triumph of the human spirit and other such triteness.
If The First Grader doesn’t think much of its subject, it thinks even less of its audience. There is no room here for a viewer to make up her or his own mind about anything. One lingering shot of a man scowling at Maruge is not nearly enough to illustrate his antagonism. He must also treat his son harshly and be willing to enlist a mob to throw rocks at an old man. His legitimate concerns are given only the briefest of mentions before being passed over in favor of narrative simplicity and laziness. This pattern repeats itself when it comes to the Kenyan political landscape. Having emerged from colonial rule half a century ago, the nation may be independent but it is far from whole. Strains of tribalism and lingering hostilities between those whose families fought and those who were loyal to the British, make for a precarious way of life. Once again, this is fodder for a film I would love to see that is largely glossed over.
Not only are these mature themes ignored, they are ignored in favor of an almost cynical sentimentality. Maruge’s teacher, the film’s other hero, is the worst example. I think she’s supposed to represent the young face of a newer Kenya, one that strives for further unification and puts her country above her tribe. Her views in the film, however, don’t have a leg to stand on. She’s not right because she’s right, she’s right because she cares so much. Hilariously, there are times in the film when she is faced with opposition that makes good points and we’re still supposed to be on her side simply because she’s on the protagonists’ side. Do they really have the funds to support this man as a student? Can tribal rivalries that are centuries old really be so easily forgotten? Who cares when she’s so full of emotion?
Perhaps this movie isn’t a complete waste. Perhaps those who see it will, feeling undernourished at its completion, be inspired, as I was, to do more research into Kenya’s history. Maybe a crowd-pleasing tearjerker will inadvertently lead xenophobic Westerners who write off the African continent at large to reflect on the ways its development was in many ways stunted and, yes, in some ways helped by colonialism. Maybe they’ll see a nation whose steps in education and industry might be advancing it in those categories while our nation loses ground. It’s too bad this film couldn’t bring any of that on its own.
There’s a scene late in The First Grader, staged with such exaggerated exuberance as to be laughably silly, in which the children lock their administrators out of the schoolyard and pelt them with sandals and plastic cups. Are Chadwick and Peacock suggesting here that the teacher is wrong and foolishly naïve? That the uprisings of the past are still in Kenya’s blood and that cultural unification is still far ahead of us? That the new guard must keep rising up against the old until all the poisons of colonialism are worked out of the system? Do they suggest that Kenya should exist in a state of permanent revolution? I honestly doubt they even considered it.