Sundance Film Festival
Diversity. Representation. Inclusion.
If you follow the conversation about what movies get made and who gets to make them, these buzzwords probably sound all too familiar. As the expansive world of filmed content continues to strive towards matching the demographic makeup of America, the oft-repeated dictum of “write what you know” takes on a scrambled significance. Who gets to tell whose stories while we wait for more storytellers? Can any meaningful progress be made for the characters on-screen in the meantime?
Chad Hartigan’s “Morris from America” offers a ray of sunshine in this debate. His accomplishment suggests our chicken-or-egg mentality when thinking about these complex issues need not guide all discourse. The writer/director spent a portion of his childhood living abroad in Europe and started writing a coming-of-age tale in that milieu. But to differentiate his film from the herd of similar flicks in the subgenre, Hartigan decided to change the race of the main characters as a way of further exploring their alienation in foreign lands.
How refreshing to see that a filmmaker can produce a work that is at once wholly personal and entirely open to assuming other people’s vantage points. (A most welcome side effect: this process also rids the film of the narcissism and self-indulgence that plagues so many indies.) “Morris from America” does not feel exploitatively race-swapped to push a cheap metaphor or argue a naive colorblindness. It strikes an appropriate balance between familiar and unfamiliar as well as comforting and daring. In other words, it’s a lot like the contradictions that define being an adolescent as a whole.
The titular teen (Markees Christmas, a lightning bolt of charisma in his first on-screen outing) embodies so many of these contradictions. Morris shifts from a cocky showman to an easily wounded puppy dog even within the same scene, just like any 13-year-old. It’s fairly remarkable he can muster up any confidence as the only person of his color or nationality at school, where these differences make him an easy target for typical bullying and some outright racism.
Things aren’t easy for Morris’ father Curtis (Craig Robinson), either. He himself needs to undergo an arc of maturation and acculturation. Curtis sends Morris out into the shark tank of a German school, telling his son to be tough and make friends … while he still struggles to surmount the grief from losing his wife. Having to play the role of two parents exhausts him to the point where maintaining social connections of his own in Heidelberg proves untenable. This loneliness winds up serving as one major connector for them, and the rapport keeps them from tearing each other apart in their high-strung situation.
The other major connector? Rap and hip-hop. These musical stylings become the key manner in which Morris understands and then expresses his feelings about the world. Hartigan mirrors the lyrical, free-form aspect of rap in the visual flourishes of “Morris from America,” which reflect the excitement of being a young person watching the world come alive before your own eyes.
It’s up to Morris, though, to make the journey away from mere derivative aping of other artists and creating sounds that correspond to his own experiences. Beyond the flash and the big talk, great rap also has to be about something real. With a big push of tough love and genuine encouragement from Curtis, Morris finds a way to accomplish them both. And Hartigan himself strikes a similar balance in “Morris from America” as a work of art – something imagined and embellished yet entirely genuine. A- /