If your understanding of the world has slipped away more and more over the last year, Craig Robinson’s new movie about expat family life is a poignant salvation. It also makes a compelling case for Robinson’s continued work in drama, as an actor famous for comedic roles in “The Office” and “Hot Tub Time Machine.”
At the 2016 Sundance Film Festival in January, Robinson won a Special Jury Award for his part in “Morris From America,” which is currently available on DirecTV and will have a limited theatrical release beginning Aug. 19. In the movie, Robinson plays a widowed father who has relocated his 13-year-old son, Morris, from New York City to Heidelberg, Germany, for a coaching job with a “football” (soccer) team.
The movie is mainly a coming-of-age story for Morris, played by Markees Christmas, but it also has a lot to say about being part of a black minority in an extremely white city. Locals are overtly racist to Morris. Robinson’s character, Curtis, tells his son at one point: “We’re the only two brothers in Heidelberg. We have to stick together.”
In an interview with The Huffington Post, Robinson said the project appealed to him because of its theme of family teamwork through adversity. “Them being there in Germany, it kind of forces them to once again revisit that friendship,” said Robinson. “Because it’s really them two against the world.”
“Especially in this atmosphere, with this election and all this stuff, it’s like, we’re still in this boat together,” Robinson said. “Let’s not rock it.”
Robinson thought screenwriter Chad Hartigan pulled a “smooth move” by writing Morris as a “super fish-out-of-water” character. (Hartigan also won an award at Sundance for the movie.)
The relationship between Curtis and Morris becomes particularly nuanced as Robinson decides he also needs to take on the roles of a traditional mother and best friend for his son. Throughout the movie, Morris struggles with the language barrier and different interests between himself and German locals. The young boy is also an aspiring hip-hop star who eventually develops a crush, but, since the girl only knows Jay Z as Beyoncé’s husband, the relationship can only go so far.
Robinson explained that he also took the role because of the film’s musical side-plots, such as Morris’ rap efforts and Curtis’ attempts to teach his son about old-school hip-hop. Before becoming an actor, Robinson worked as an elementary-school music teacher ― although he admits he was always “more of a funk guy” than a fan of the rap his character champions in the movie.
Midway through “Morris,” Curtis gives his son an old mixtape of his own rapping as a kid. It ends up being his dad trying to imitate Biggie Smalls, but Morris, not knowing what to expect, plays the awkward tracks in his crush’s bedroom. Since she doesn’t know anything about hip-hop, he’s luckily the only one who realizes it’s bad.
“I’ve rapped for fun in karaoke,” said Robinson. “But for the most part, my rapping skills are non-existent and that was just fun. I was actually reading when I rapped that.”
As Americans overseas, the cast members went out of their way to bond together in Germany, diving into the local party culture. Robinson explained how they would throw impromptu “fests” with German food and beer in a barn with a DJ. “One of the nights I played piano and we partied all night,” Robinson said, smiling.
Finding your team can serve a bigger purpose than just survival against the odds.
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