Cinema Studies Faculty Make Documentary on Toni Morrison
Oberlin College has been awarded a grant of $250,000 from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and a grant of $100,000 through the Ford Foundation’s JustFilms initiative to complete production and post-production of The Foreigner’s Home, a feature-length documentary film on the intellectual and artistic vision of Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison. Produced and directed by Oberlin College Cinema Studies faculty Geoff Pingree and Rian Brown, the film explores the ideas and vision Toni Morrison articulated—and the public conversation she began—in the exhibition she guest-curated at the Louvre in 2006.
Pingree and Brown began work on The Foreigner’s Home over two years ago, but the current funding will allow them to conduct interviews with the author in open discussion with artists at her home as they continue the vital exchange about the increasingly urgent questions of “foreignness” evident in the forced migration of unprecedented numbers of political refugees in the Americas, in Europe, and in the Middle East.
The project has Morrison’s full support and includes exclusive use of unreleased video recordings of her 2006 residency in Paris shot by her son, Ford, who initiated and consulted on the project, which is now being executive produced by filmmaker Jonathan Demme.
To address these timely questions, and to highlight art’s crucial role in comprehending the human problems that surround such questions, the film will include extensive archival still and motion pictures of American and international topics and events basic to Morrison’s vision—from slavery to the blues, from the Great Migration, to the racial violence in Ferguson, from the troubled border relations between the U.S. and Mexico to the current migration crisis in the Middle East and Europe.
At the Louvre 10 years ago, Morrison posed a series of candid and timely questions (Who is the foreigner? Where is home? Who decides?) about the ongoing divisions—national, cultural, religious, ethnic—that feed so much contemporary conflict in the United States and around the world. “It may be that the most defining characteristic of our times,” she noted, “is that … walls and weapons feature as prominently now as they once did, in Medieval times ….” In response to the despair of the growing number of displaced and unwanted people, Morrison pointed to the artist as a figure with unique powers and responsibilities in the ongoing human struggle to break down barriers and find liberation, identity, and community: “Art invites us to take the journey … from data to information to knowledge to wisdom. Artists make language, images, sounds to bear witness, to shape beauty and to comprehend.”
Throughout production of The Foreigner’s Home, the filmmakers will be assisted by Oberlin College undergraduates and alumni, as well as conservatory students and faculty, and they will include materials from the college’s archives and special collections and from the extensive holdings of the conservatory’s James and Susan Neumann Jazz Collection. Neither biography nor traditional documentary film, The Foreigner’s Home is instead intended to be a provocative and timely meditation on some of humanity’s oldest and most deeply rooted schisms and hatreds. Whether delivering a formal speech or talking informally with radio hosts or filmmakers; whether enumerating the ways, throughout history, in which people have included and excluded, lionized and blamed, protected and destroyed each other; whether identifying the shame about slavery and racial inequality that still festers in the American psyche; Morrison returns frequently and passionately in her work to the fragile and often repressed experience of the outsider in human society, for she believes that understanding the experience of the foreigner is crucial to imagining and building a more just and peaceful world.
In The Foreigner’s Home, Pingree and Brown hope to convey the substance, power, and relevance of the incisive warning Morrison issued 10 years ago: “The destiny of the 21st century will be shaped by the possibility or the collapse of a shareable world.”