In a week dominated by the conversation around diversity at the Oscars and Charlotte Rampling‘s subsequent (and very troubling) comments on the issue, “Morris From America”— led by comedy veteran Craig Robinson and newcomer Markees Christmas — is precisely the respite audiences need right now. At least, it should be. Focused on fetishizing rather than intimately depicting, director Chad Hartigan has produced a warm-hearted yarn that treats its two African-American leading men like props in his white-washed game of chess.
Well-intentioned at first, the movie tells the story of a father and son who uproot their life and move to Germany. The cross-continent move is an attempt for Curtis (Robinson) and Morris (Christmas) to start anew after the death of their wife/mother. Far away from their home in Richmond, New York, Morris bravely tries to assimilate himself in this foreign land by taking german lessons from Inka (Carla Juri), who quickly becomes his confidant. Soon Morris, thirteen, meets other teenagers at the local youth center. Like most teenagers in the midst of puberty, the center is populated by imperious assholes (or “German dickheads,” as Morris so eloquently says). The saving grace in this equation is Katrin (Lina Keller), a manic-pixie German girl if there ever was one. Morris inevitably falls head over heels for Katrin, who smokes cigarettes, sports sunglasses at night, dislikes her mother, and dates an older boy who rides a motorcycle. (Note: it’s always an older boy on a motorcycle.)
When not taunting or teasing him, Katrin slowly takes a liking to Morris, who begins to win her over with his endearing mix of charm and confidence. Slowly, though, the film drifts away from the concept of two wide-eyed teenagers excited by the unfamiliar (and new) sensations of lust. Katrin devolves into caricature, angsty and angry, disingenuously fixated with Morris’ blackness — especially his aspirations to become a rapper. In fact, all of his peers approach Morris as if it’s the first time they’ve interacted with a person of color. And Hartigan (both in the script and behind the camera) treats Morris in a distressingly similar fashion. The movie — along with its characters — presents Morris’ cultural identity like an ephemeral amusement. A sort of circus act, stripped of any substance, but intriguing to prospective onlookers.
The bullish teenagers call him “Kobe Bryant” when asking if he’d like to play basketball. Katrin, while Morris is in her bedroom, asks our eponymous character if he’s well-endowed because of his pigmentation. When Morris expresses his affinity for Jay Z and Notorious B.I.G., Katrin resorts to calling him a “gangsta-rapper.” These characterizations don’t seem to be driven by naïveté, but willful ignorance. Like last year’s “Dope” — which also made its well-received premiere at Sundance — ‘Morris’ is dedicated to skimming the surface of the African-American experience. It takes an oddly obstinate approach, uninterested in understanding Morris.
At 91 minutes, the movie is not consistently insensitive. In fact, Robinson, in his first dramatic role, nearly saves Hartigan’s flawed script with a knockout performance. Walking the tight-rope between father and friend to Morris, Curtis grapples with parenting as he’s tasked with raising his son without the love of his life. Morris needs Curtis to fill every position — father, mother, disciplinarian. In turn, Curtis is lonely and isolated without the affection of Morris. Without his son, he has nothing but his day job as a premier soccer coach. The bond forged between these two is palpable, and it’s Robinson who forces the viewer to empathize with their shared alienation.
However, even when “Morris From America” elicits laughter, it’s hard to keep its scripting issues at bay. Robinson does all he can to push Hartigan’s parochial perspective further and further into the distance, but it’s presence remains perceptible, looming just over the horizon until it consumes the foreground. This provincial, one-dimensional fixation with Morris’ identity calls to mind a recent interview with #blacklivesmatter activist DeRay McKesson, who went on “The Late Show” this week to educate Stephen Colbert on his white privilege (of which, Colbert admitted to having in spades). In the illuminating segment that could’ve been an hour longer, both McKesson and Colbert evinced nuance and depth, refusing to be circumscribed by roles arbitrarily assigned to them. And it makes sense. Lazy stereotypes in our day-to-day lives —which are dangerously interested in who someone ought to be, rather than who they may be — are no longer acceptable. Why, then, should they be tolerated in our movies? [C-]