As you may already know if you attended SIFF’s Opening Night, The First Grader goes down easy, despite pedestrian scripting and direction. Quickie’d and ranked (C+) weeks ago by Entertainment Weekly, this forgettable flick about a onetime Mau Mau warrior determined to learn to read in his old age relies on two attractive performers—Naomie Harris and Oliver Litondo—to gin up inspirational glow. Such feel-good fakery requires the glossing over of inconvenient historical nastiness: Mau Mau butchers morph into Kikiyu Freedom Fighters, while the Brits darken the hero’s memory as brutish killers of women and children.
Like The First Grader, Abdellatif Kechiche’s Black Venus, also based on actual events, deals with troubled relations between Africans and Europeans. But Kechiche’s film breaks your heart and hurts like hell to watch. Black Venus insists that we put skin in the game. It won’t allow us to lean back and look at this African life through a happy haze of unreality.
That short, sad African life was Sarah (Saartjes) Baartman’s, a young black woman brought to England by a South African Dutch colonist around the turn of the 18th century. There she became a circus freak dubbed the “Hottentot Venus,” her huge buttocks (steatopygia) and pendulous genitalia (“Hottentot apron”) the drawing card.