In contemporary film, it’s typical for an African-American character to be the sole person of color in the story, his or her only reason for existence to reveal hidden racism or to make white people uncomfortable with themselves. Black characters rarely get to talk to other black characters. Last year, critic Manohla Dargis suggested a new Bechdel-type test (calling it the DuVernay test) to assess whether films feature “African Americans and other minorities [who] have fully realized lives rather than serv[ing] as the scenery in white stories.” But even before that, writer Nikesh Shukla suggested his own test, which, to pass, a movie must (1) have at least two black characters, who (2) talk to each other about (3) something other than race.
In Chad Hartigan’s lighthearted drama Morris From America, there are a whopping two African-American characters. The difference between this film and most others, however, is that these two are fully yet subtly drawn. They interact with one another in ways that feel genuine, the actors portraying a heartfelt father-son relationship and the director fighting the urge to get either too preachy or mushy.
American expat Curtis (Craig Robinson) and his son, Morris (Markees Christmas), attempt to make friends in Heidelberg, Germany, after Curtis gets a coaching job for the local — and terrible — soccer team. Morris takes language lessons from local grad student Inka, played by Carla Juri, whose lead turn in 2013’s raunchy indie Wetlands is a gross-out classic. Hartigan smartly collides Inka’s cheeky warmth with Morris’ naive (but sweet) bravado — he’s learning about language and life. He needs the help, since his mother has died and he’s surrounded by a bunch of very white German children who insist on stereotyping him (“Hey, MC Big Mac” and “Don’t you play basketball?”) while they wear knockoff Americanized shirts that read “New York” and “Ohio” (because nobody told these kids Ohio is not cool).
Meanwhile, Curtis is adrift in the dating world, attempting to make eyes at German women but getting shut down immediately by the ladies and his co-workers, a bunch of privileged cockblockers. It shouldn’t be surprising that Robinson, a gifted comic, is so adept and natural in a drama, but it is disappointing that this is the first time he’s gotten the opportunity to star in one.
Father and son rely on each other for everything, Curtis more than Morris once he starts staying out late after falling for sinewy manic pixie mean girl Katrin (Lina Keller). She’s hyper-curious about Morris’ outsider status and feels the right to ask the 13-year-old if he has a “big black dick.” Just with his eyes Christmas conveys the confusing mix of pride, shame and otherness the question elicits. It’s an uncomfortable moment — writer-director Hartigan is white — but it played for me as an accurate, if squirmy, scene of what might happen when a German girl who’s only ever seen black people on American TV finally meets someone with melanin.
Hartigan also makes Morris an aspiring rapper, a choice that's a little stereotypical but also not unrealistic for a kid from Queens trying to hold on to any cultural remnants of his past. When Inka finds Morris’ book of rhymes, filled with aped material about bitches and hos, and awkwardly confronts Curtis about it, Hartigan thankfully doesn’t condescend to make Inka the white savior who rescues the boy from a life of misogyny. Instead, Curtis shakes off the lyrics for what they are (banal fantasy) and punishes Morris not for the “bad” words but for the inauthentic ones — he encourages Morris to tell his own story.
The film is strongest in the push-and-pull dynamic between father and son, whose realistic feel-goodness is like a Degrassi episode gone to Heidelberg. There’s no avoiding the uncomfortable white people who focus on race in this story, but at the very least Morris From America approaches the topic head-on, without the winks. Maybe we need a few more dimensions to that DuVernay test.