Imagine you’re a black American teenager living in Germany. Your dad, a concerned widower, works as a soccer coach; you’ve yet to give in and start calling it football. Your mom’s death drove the two of you here, to Heidelberg, which is not Berlin, much to your collective chagrin. But you make do. So far as you know, you’re the only black or even brown kid in the vicinity; relatedly, probably, you don’t have any friends. What would you do with them if you did? You like hip-hop, but you can’t dance. You don’t play basketball. You choke when you toke and you don’t wear a beanie. Compared to Germans’ expectations of a black kid from the states, in other words, you’re a toothless disappointment: You’re not the Cool Black Kid™. Even your rhymes can’t save you. To the electro-swinging, Molly-slinging crowd of German teens at your youth center, hip-hop — the token black guy’s presumptive ticket to social cachet — seems out of place. And so do you.
You are Morris, and you’re the hero of writer–director Chad Hartigan’s new movie Morris from America, which debuted at Sundance this year. Topically, the movie could have been a somber drama about black difference abroad. There’s certainly plenty to say on that subject, and we still need that movie. Refreshingly, Hartigan opts for something lighter. The risk is that he opts for comedy. Or something like that: “Coming-of-age indie” is probably its own comedic genre by now, and his choice explains the whiff of missed opportunity the film gives off from the start.
It explains the movie’s greatest asset, too: the many splashes of irony in the script. The movie’s young black hero, Morris (Markees Christmas), gets teased for not being black enough by a swaggering German boy, a proto-bro who happens to play the flute. As for the rest of the middle-class German kids at Morris’s youth center, kids who couldn’t tell Biggie from the Ying Yang Twins if you asked: They have the distinction of somehow being more gangster than Morris. They’re the rebels: the ones running off with DJs in skinny jeans at age 15, the ones littering the youth center with marijuana roaches.
This is good stuff. Does Hartigan know it? His movie doesn’t take advantage, if he does. His camera sometimes mimics the vivacious swerves and bounce you’ll find in rap videos and gangster movies, enlivening Morris’s inner life with a hip-hop–borne sense of self. And then what? In Hartigan’s hands, this is all ephemeral data, bubbling up from a slipstream of quirky, humorous details that evaporate before he can tease them out. That’s a common enough problem. The gag is: Hartigan’s good at detail. He’s a talented curator.
To what end? The movie needn’t have been a political comedy, or anything in particular; art should surprise us. But the political potential of its premise is inescapable, perhaps because outsiderness here and abroad has long been a staple of black political art. (Hartigan is white.) This is well-mined, uncomfortable territory — which is precisely what makes it ripe for new comic insights, and particularly for new forms of political comedy, but also what makes it vulnerable to half-baked liberalism. Even black comedians whose work isn’t explicitly political, like Retta of Parks and Recreation, have managed to wrench the subject of all its insicive potential — for broad audiences and to great delight.
Why, then, does Hartigan’s film feel like being gnawed to death by the stylish comfort of good intentions? That’s not to say it isn’t enjoyable: It’s efficient and likeable, as if by contract. But the premise gives us more to think about than the movie can handle — that would require getting its hands dirty. Morris and his father, Curtis (Craig Robinson), are distinctly middle class. The movie’s surface conceit is that they’re black and slightly out of place in Germany. But its real conceit is that the Germans seem to have expectations of blackness as well as ideas about their own rebelliousness relative to it. Morris attracts the attention of a German girl looking to rebel against her mother. But is he black enough for that? Her insistence that he rap in public makes you think he’ll have to prove he is — and though he does finally rap in public, it isn’t for the sake of following through on this idea.
That’s generally the fate of the movie’s most interesting material. In an indie coming-of-age movie, what matters more is the simpler satisfaction of, say, knowing whether the hero will get with the girl and whether he has grown up — come of age — in the process. To make it worse, many of this film’s best ideas were already explored, with a smidgen more insight, in last year’s Dope. That, too, is a Sundance movie about a black kid who loves hip-hop. That film’s protagonist gets into Harvard. Do I sense the beginning of a new trend? Is black our new indie quirk? To its credit, Dope had something, though not much, to say about the collapse of the hood, the middle class, and the new trope of the black hipster. A worthy idea without much follow through.
Morris, on the other hand, has one advantage: a far more valuable act of transgression at its center. Dope’s hero sold dope to make the movie’s point about the lack of moral distinction between lower- and middle-class blackness, a solid refutation of the Cosby era. Morris, on the other hand, drops rhymes like these:
Bad, right? But they’re notable for representing a fantastical lie. Morris of course knows nothing about any of what he’s rapping about: He’s 13 and lives in Heidelberg. He’s never called a girl a “bitch” in earnest, let alone done the rest of what he’s claimed to have those bars. But the fantasy those lines lay bare is valuable. They’re the movie’s greatest insight into who Morris thinks he is, who he wants to be, and what’s at stake for him in hip-hop. For a middle-class expat going through puberty, it’s a fantasy of manhood that feels and sounds distinctly African American. That’s a fantasy I want to know more about. But for that, we’ll need a better movie.