Toni Morrison’s Artistry Drives Faculty Film, ‘The Foreigner’s Home’

December 15, 2017

Amanda Nagy

Toni Morrison
Novelist Toni Morrison in 2006 at the Louvre, where she guest-curated an exhibition on "The Foreigner's Home."
Photo credit: Courtesy of Rian Brown-Orso and Geoff Pingree

A documentary about Toni Morrison’s artistic and intellectual vision directed by cinema studies faculty Rian Brown-Orso and Geoff Pingree will premiere in early 2018.

The Foreigner’s Home, a feature-length film, explores the issues Morrison raised when she guest-curated an exhibition by the same name at the Louvre in 2006. At the Louvre, Morrison invited renowned artists whose works deal with the experience of cultural and social displacement to join her in a public conversation about the concepts that she had been pursuing for years in her own work at Princeton University. Morrison’s son Ford accompanied her to Paris and shot video footage throughout the two-week event.

The Nobel Laureate posed a series of candid and timely questions (Who is the foreigner? Where is home? Who decides?) about the ongoing national, cultural, religious, and ethnic divisions that feed 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.”

The film expands on that conversation, combining exclusive on-camera and audio interviews with Morrison, as well as unreleased footage of her dialogue with artists—first, in Paris in 2006, and later in 2015, at her home in New York state—with extensive archival film footage, music, and still images to present a series of incisive exchanges about race, identity, “foreignness,” and art’s redemptive power.

In 2012, Morrison began discussing the fate of Ford’s footage with her longtime friend and neighbor, the late director Jonathan Demme—a supporter of Oberlin’s Cinema Studies Program and the Apollo Theatre renovation. Aware that Morrison grew up near Oberlin in Lorain, Ohio, Demme suggested bringing the footage to Rian Brown-Orson and Geoff Pingree.

Group image of Toni Morrison, Edwidge Danticat, and Oberlin faculty
From left, novelist Edwidge Danticat, Geoff Pingree, Toni Morrison, and Rian Brown-Orso. The image was taken at Morrison’s home in Upstate New York. Courtesy of Rian Brown-Orso and Geoff Pingree.

The professors met with Morrison that year, and the project evolved into a feature film over the next five years. From the beginning of the project, it was understood and written in the original contract that Morrison would not sit for any on-camera interviews.

“After we cut a shorter version of the film, we believed strongly that in order to properly acknowledge her stature as a writer and thinker, and to genuinely honor her vision and ideas, especially her thinking about foreigners and refugees in society, we needed to expand the scope of the film,” says Pingree, professor of cinema studies and co-director of the Apollo Outreach Initiative. “In particular, we believed she needed to address now the issues she raised 10 years earlier in her exhibition at the Louvre. With the escalation of the war in Syria and the growing refugee crisis, the issues of human displacement and demonizing outsiders were only becoming more relevant.”

They wrote her an impassioned letter explaining why they felt it was important for her to speak on camera.

“We were delighted when she granted our request, agreeing that it was imperative to expand the reach and timeliness of the film,” Pingree says. “She also suggested that we broaden our focus to include other artists and critics in the conversation about ‘the foreigner.’”

A cornerstone of the film is an on-camera conversation between Morrison and novelist Edwidge Danticat at Morrison’s home.

Brown-Orso and Pingree say they can’t overstate the influence of Jonathan Demme, who was executive producer of the project. They consulted with him throughout the various cuts of the film up until his death in 2016. The film is dedicated to him.

“The project never would have happened without him,” says Brown-Orso, associate professor of cinema studies and codirector of the Apollo Outreach Initiative. “Jonathan’s generosity of spirit and his commitment to social justice infused the entire project.”

Many Oberlin students and alumni were involved in the project by contributing archival research, assistant editing, audio recording, French translation, shooting, sound design, and transcription. The original score was composed by Conservatory of Music faculty Jay Ashby, associate professor of jazz arranging, and Peter Swendsen, associate professor of computer music and digital arts. All of the original music was recorded by faculty, students, and alumni in Clonick Hall.  

The film will premiere at the prestigious International Film Festival Rotterdam in the Netherlands, which runs January 24 through February 4, 2018. Pingree says it is considered one of Europe’s most significant festivals and plays a central role in overseas distribution. The film has also been selected to screen at the Miami International Film Festival and will have its regional premiere in April at the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Brown-Orso says they are waiting to hear if it will be accepted into dozens of other festivals around the world, including SXSW and Tribeca. They intend to have a special screening at the Apollo Theatre during Commencement/Reunion Weekend, May 25-28, 2018.

Watch the trailer: The Foreigner’s Home

You may also like…

Peter Takács—A Half-Century Celebrated

May 4, 2024

This spring marks the official conclusion of Takács’ tenure, after an incredible 48 years of teaching. Many of his former students from around the world are set to convene for a celebratory concert in Warner Concert Hall on May 12
man seated in front of grand piano