Movie Review - Morris From America

With this film, there's a strong case for child actors of color getting recognized for their performances. Royalty Hightower from The Fits and Madina Nalwanga from Queen of Katwe are the two young girls who have made splashes and are the other young black actors to whom to compare. Yet, Julian Dennison from Hunt for the Wilderpeople who is Maori is the closest comparison here. Both Dennison and the young teen in this movie are about the same age. Both are slightly overweight and into hip hop music. A large chunk of both their stories involve their relationship with a father or father-figure. Both are displaced in an environment, which is slightly or totally foreign to them, geographically or culturally.

Markees Christmas stars as the titular Morris Gentry, a 13-year-old black child who is living with his single father in Heidelberg, Germany. He has a tutor who teaches him the German language. He likes cocoa with marshmallow. He knows how to cut hair but he doesn't play basketball or dance. He is familiar with The Notorious B.I.G. and Jay-Z's music. He's very smart and he's interested in an older, German girl.

Craig Robinson (The Office and Hot Tub Time Machine) co-stars as Curtis Gentry, the father of Morris who works as a soccer coach. Rightly or wrongly, he treats his son more like an adult or even a friend but not in the way that is hands-off. He's very much engaged and on top of his son. It's just that they can talk to each other about everything even each other's penis size. Yet, there is a level of respect between them that is beautiful and warm. Watching that dynamic is great.

If anything, that is what makes this movie a very good viewing experience. Seeing a warm and healthy relationship between an African-American father and son is rare at the movies, particularly a Hollywood release. It's also refreshing. It's odd that it comes from writer-director Chad Hartigan, a white man, but still refreshing nonetheless. Robinson is so funny and charming, sweet yet strong, that he's just great to see interacting with Markees Christmas.

At the end of the movie, Curtis is talking to Morris. Morris has gotten into slight trouble. Curtis criticizes his son identifying correctly that Morris has gotten into trouble due to his pursuit of the German girl. Morris asks how his dad knew that he was pursuing a girl or that this whole thing was about a girl. Curtis responds by saying it's always about a girl.

The problem is that Hartigan acknowledges a cliche but does nothing to subvert or overcome it. In the movies this year featuring the other aforementioned, child actors like Hightower, Nalwanga and Dennison, their filmmakers do subvert or overcome cliches. Here, Hartigan succumbs to the cliche and calling it out in his screenplay isn't enough. He simply gives us the same old, coming-of-age journey we've seen time and time again.

It would have been fine, if Hartigan had explored the situation of a black boy or man from the United States living in Germany a little more. It seems as if Morris and his dad are the only black people in Heidelberg and the only black people in all of Germany. This of course isn't true, but an exploration of the Afro-German experience would have been appreciated.

J. Cole is a black rapper who was born in Germany but who immigrated to the U.S. with his white German mother who was single. He was even born in the very town, which Morris visits in this movie, Frankfurt. There are also a lot of black German footballers like Jérôme Boateng and Marvin Compper. Morris might not have been aware of these people, but Curtis should have. Curtis is portrayed as a lonely widower who spends most nights alone or occasionally calling phone sex lines. Having him more connected to the Afro-German community, however limited, should have at least been touched upon.

Three Stars out of Five.
Rated R for teen drug use, sexual material, brief nudity and language.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 31 mins.


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