To be a black kid in America is to understand intimately and far
too young what it means to be disregarded, politicized, isolated—all themes
that thread their way through adolescence. To be a black kid from America
living in Heidelberg, Germany is to only have those issues become impossible to
ignore. This is the fertile ground on which “Morris From America” builds its sweet-hearted, somewhat slight,
and detrimentally too eager-to-please coming-of-age tale. That more films don’t
mine this fraught landscape is a travesty. Growing up is so often about trying
on new identities until you grow more comfortable and figure out your own. For
black kids it's so much about the identities and misconceptions thrust upon
them. Despite the film’s notable strengths, this is a careful distinction that
writer/director Chad Hartigan misses, much to the film’s detriment.
"Morris from America" centers on the title character (newcomer Markees Christmas) and his
single dad, Chris (Craig Robinson) as they try to stick together in the
isolating terrain of Heidelberg. They find a comfortable routine—getting ice
cream, arguing over hip-hop, ignoring the weighty memory of Morris’ dead mother
that hovers at the margins of their lives. But their strong relationship isn’t
enough to fully satisfy their desire for connection and community. It’s here
that the film truly finds its most interesting ground by touching on how
loneliness shapes us.
“I don’t need any friends,” Morris says early on.
“Everyone needs friends,” his language tutor Inka (Carla Juri)
Morris doesn’t have many options when it comes to friends and his
time at a local youth center only makes that more clear. Morris and the kids
around him are a study in contrasts. They’re thin blondes and redheads with
none of his earnestness. They throw insulting nicknames at him like “Big Mac”
and “Kobe Bryant” to remind him of his place in their world. He’s a dark-skinned,
chubby, hip-hop head. But he ends up finding the closest thing to friendship in
the 15-year old Katrin (Lina Keller), a winsome girl feigning womanhood through
the usual mix of teenage rebellion.
"Morris from America" nails how even minor age differences in adolescence
feel like lifetimes. Even before her motorcycle-riding, DJ boyfriend hits the
scene, it’s clear Morris doesn’t have a chance and Katrin is just teasing him.
But that just emboldens him more. There’s an easygoing charm to watching their
friendship develop. Christmas and Keller have a chemistry that feels authentic
to the sort of unrequited crush between them. But Katrin isn’t solace from the
racism Morris faces elsewhere; if anything, she pushes it to the surface. She’s
a bit too curious about his blackness asking about his love of rap, if black
people can dance, and his “big black dick” in a particularly cringe worthy
scene. Christmas’ performance elevates moments like these as he displays a mix
of confusion, desire and embarrassment. He finds notes that the script and
direction seem to bypass—calling attention to how the character’s loneliness
and disconnect from the culture around him leads him to find weak
approximations of what he’s truly yearning for. Although sometimes not even he
can fix a rather misguided scene involving a pillow, Katrin’s sweater, and an explicit
Even with its keen understanding of the awkwardness of being a
teenager, “Morris From America” ultimately has a cozy, comforting tone. Which is a problem. Adolescence has sharp
edges to it—it can’t always be sweet and ultimately uplifting. The film's desire to be a
pleasing, saccharine story causes it to bungle the darker aspects of the story
especially when it comes to race.
A knot grew tighter and tighter in my stomach as Morris leapt
into one mistake after another fueled by the naïve hope of connecting deeper
with Katrin. He soon trips into the sort of teenaged rebellion that defines
much of Katrin’s identity: sketchy parties, drinking, light drug usage. Each of
these scenes make Morris seem even younger than he looks. Hartigan wisely
doesn’t veer into afterschool special territory even once Chris finds out. But
there’s something missing here that I couldn’t ignore.
Every black kid growing up eventually hears the same set of
guidelines about existing in the world. How even minor trouble can get you into
the path of the police. And being in their path can get you killed. You have to
toe the line in ways your white friends never even have to think about. You
must be hyper-vigilant to prove your worth and stay out of trouble to survive.
Morris acts like a kid who never got that conversation which seems less a
narrative choice and more a blind spot of Hartigan’s as the film continues,
especially as there are moments where his race is what gets him in trouble. I
wasn’t expecting Chris to ever lay down some overwrought monologue about police
brutality. This isn’t that kind of movie. But that he doesn’t say anything
about the trouble Morris can find himself in feels emotionally and
intellectually dishonest. Sure, we can chalk that up to Chris being a widower
who perhaps feels uncomfortable with the weight of parenthood being all on his
shoulders but the script doesn’t delve into that enough.
"Morris from America" is
not the kind of film that stays with you, but its central performances do.
Markees Christmas embodies the tender yearning that comes with adolescence
hiding his vulnerability in a slack physicality as if he’s trying to seem even
smaller to the world around him. But it’s Craig Robinson’s performance that
truly gets under your skin. He demonstrates an incredible range in the film.
He’s warm, funny, and brings the loneliness of his character into focus.
Loneliness underscores his physical presence in the slope of his shoulders, the
disappointment in his eyes, and how the character continues to wear his wedding
ring. You can’t help but feel for him as the void his wife left behind becomes
apparent in how he fails to connect with women and feels just as lost as his
But ultimately Hartigan's film seems too eager to be uplifting and easygoing. Just when
it’s about to hit a nerve it pulls back into more comfortable territory showing
another slow motion sequence of Katrin’s hair whipping around her as Morris
looks on awestruck. There’s a fascinating scene where Chris discovers some
explicit lyrics Morris wrote thanks to the over-eagerness of Inka. The
uneasiness and casual racism of the event is evident. Hartigan wisely lets us
fill in the blanks in regards to the ugliness of this situation. But he utterly
fails when Chris confronts Morris. Why does this 13-year old black kid whose
father works on some minor soccer team write about a hard life full of sex and
violence? The lyrics are a cliché of black masculinity and growing up poor that
Morris knows nothing about, which Chris wastes no time telling him. While
Robinson adds notes of anger and frustration to the confrontation, the script
itself shortchanges a moment ripe with possibility. Why does Morris put up a
front embodying the same stereotypes the German kids expect of him? Is this a
defense mechanism or sincerely the kind of rapper he wants to grow up to be?
These aren’t questions the film answers let alone considers in the first place.
But the palpable yearning of its characters and the strength of the lead performances
find grace and power where the rest of the film can’t.
“Any human touch can change you,” James Baldwin once wrote. In “Morris from America” this proves all