Review: Morris from America (2016)

Morris in Germany, surviving any way he can

By Zeke Trautenberg

Hip hop unites the introverted thirteen-year-old Morris (played with subtlety and economy of emotion by Markees Christmas) and his widowed father, Curtis (the ever-funny and vulnerable Craig Robinson). The close and playful relationship between father and son is encapsulated by the first scene of the film, in which they argue over the virtues of Jeru the Damaja’s 1993 hypnotic “Come Clean.” (“Freaky freaky freaky freaky flow / Control the mic like Fidel Castro”). The two live in the decidedly un-gangster city of Heidelberg, Germany. With its red rooftops and idyllic setting along the Rhine, Heidelberg presents a stark juxtaposition to Morris’s Bronx-inflected hip hop fantasies.

Hartigan’s film hews closely to the typical structure of the coming-of-age film, with its interweaving arcs of romance and internal and external conflict, that culminate in the protagonist’s self-realization and growth. However, Morris form America does not replicate the genre so much as use its conventions to explore themes of race, masculinity, and fatherhood during a time when being black and from America is a struggle for the moral right to exist, let alone engage in civic life. Amid these serious themes, Hartigan adds playful visual motifs, like a scene of museum patrons and statues bobbing their heads in tandem to the music from Morris’s headphones. Meanwhile, the film’s superb soundtrack, which features songs by hip hop artist Jay Stone among others, captures Morris’s New York bravado and his struggles to adapt and to fit in.

With his brown skin, doughy features, and Yankees hat, Morris plainly stands out in Heidelberg. His dad, who works as a coach for the local soccer team, is his sole friend and confidant. Morris passes the laconic days of summer walking around the idyllic city on the Rhine listening to hip hop and taking German-language classes with his good-natured teacher Inka (Carla Juri). Aware of her Morris’s loneliness, Inka encourages Morris to visit the local youth center so that he can make friends and practice his German. At the center, Morris sits removed from the other teenagers and ignores insults from a boy who calls him “Kobe Bryant” and asks if he plays basketball. This is the first of a series of racially-tinged insults and jibes that Morris bears with a mix of stoicism and exasperation. It is only when Morris’s disastrous performance during the youth center’s talent show that his frustration turns into rage.

For the German teenagers at the youth center, Morris’s blackness, Americanness, and masculinity are refracted through popular culture and consumption. The young American is labeled a basketball player, a “good dancer,” a rapper, and a drug user, but these superficial stereotypes and discrimination reflect the limits of cosmopolitanism and openness in twenty-first century Germany. In this vein, although Morris from America does not allude to the massive influx of migrants and refugees to the country that coincided with the production of the film in the summer of 2015, the racism—overt or otherwise—directed at Morris reflect broader tensions underlying the country’s social fabric.

Morris’s relationship with Katrin (Lina Keller), a rebellious blonde girl who he meets at the center similarly reflects the intertwined relationship between Morris’s blackness and his Americanness. Katrin alternatively teases and shows affection for the American boy, who seems to represent a rebuke of her beautiful, but monotonous city. After meeting Morris, she invites him to a party and then humiliates him by spraying his pants with a water gun. Although she later tells Morris this was a prank meant to be reciprocated, the young American does not get the joke. This pattern of acceptance and rejection continues throughout the film, but the good-hearted, forbearing Morris recognizes that the impulsive Katrin is not mean-spirited. She too is anxious to escape “German dickheads” of Heidelberg. Although Morris’s infatuation with Katrin is never entirely reciprocated, she takes hold of his adolescent psyche.

Parallel with Morris’s struggles with identity, we see his single father wrestle with how to raise his adolescent son. Having lived in Germany during his career as a player, Curtis is aware of its history and the latent danger of intolerance and violence aimed at men of color. While Curtis’s exhortations to his son to let his dad know when he is staying out late are understandable to any parent, they gain a sense of urgency in Morris’s case, as his adolescent naiveté belies his earnestness and self-composure. Curtis does not aim to stifle his son’s growth into adulthood or his creativity. Rather, he urges his son to engage honestly with his passions, be they rap, German girls, or otherwise.

The complicity between father and son is exemplified by a self-recorded mixtape Curtis gives to his son. When Morris discovers that the cassette contains his father clumsily rapping a Notorious B.I.G. cover, he dismisses his dad’s short-lived music ambitions. Ironically, his father has the similar criticism for his son. After reading a set of conceited and misogynist lyrics in Morris’s notebook, Curtis ironically remarks: “You need to rap about how you don’t know shit.” He encourages his son to wax poetic about his own experiences, a message that the budding young man takes to heart, declaring in rhyme before an audience of ecstatic German techno fans: “Morris in Germany surviving any way I can.” However, his father would not have him survive on his own. Rather, Curtis says, they should stick together, because after all they are “the only brothers in Heidelberg.”

Director: Chad Hartigan

Running Time: 91 minutes

Country: USA/Germany

Photos: Beachside Films/Lichtblick Meida/INDI Film

(Published simultaneously in Párrafo 451)