Who IS the foreigner?
So wonders Toni Morrison in her solemn vision of art’s power
to redeem a world riven by race, power, and money.
The Foreigner’s Home explores Toni Morrison’s artistic and intellectual vision through “The Foreigner’s Home,” her 2006 exhibition at the Louvre. Through exclusive footage of Morrison in dialogue with artists, along with extensive archival footage, music, and animation, the film presents a series of candid and incisive exchanges about race, identity, “foreignness,” and art’s redemptive power.
The Foreigner’s Home is a feature-length documentary film that explores the vision and work of Toni Morrison through “The Foreigner’s Home,” the 2006 exhibition she guest-curated at the Louvre. Morrison invited renowned artists whose work also deals with the experience of cultural and social displacement to join her in a public conversation that she had been pursuing for years through her own research and writing and in her teaching at Princeton University. The film expands that conversation, combining exclusive and unreleased footage of the Nobel Laureate in dialogue with artists—first, in Paris in 2006 and then, in 2015, at her home in New York state—with extensive archival film footage, music, and still images to present a series of candid and incisive exchanges about race, identity, “foreignness,” and art’s redemptive power.
To address 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, and to highlight art’s crucial role in comprehending the human problems that surround such questions, the film includes extensive archival still and motion pictures of American and international topics and events basic to Morrison’s vision—from slavery to the blues, from Hurricane Katrina to the current migration crisis in the Middle East and Europe.
At the Louvre ten 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 U.S. 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.”
Neither biography nor traditional documentary film, The Foreigner’s Home is instead 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”, her 2006 exhibition, Toni Morrison drew connections among diverse figures, works, and events—from painter Theodore Gericault’s The Raft of the Medusa to filmmaker Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep, from jazz to hip-hop, from the U.S. Civil Rights movement to Hurricane Katrina—to conjure a shareable world whose well being depends on the never-ending public conversation that is art.
In Paris, she surprised many when she brought a group of local slam poets into the Louvre to highlight her belief in the power of unfettered (and sometimes disruptive) artistic expression to transform society. Referring to these poets, she observed that…young people's music is always despised and hated as corrupt, violent, sexual…. Mozart was despised as a kid when he was composing too many notes, too much, too fast. Jazz was the worst music you could hear. It was banned. Blues was banned. Rock music was banned. Young people's music is banned until it becomes the music of the land, and the same thing happened with hip-hop… But…despised as it is, young people's music…change[s] the language. And some people are afraid of that…. I was interested in un-policed language—language without the cops.
Our film seeks to extend Morrison’s vision, honoring both its intellectual power and subversive artistic challenge.
To do this we deploy a number of distinctive resources, including exclusive on-camera conversations between Toni Morrison and Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat in Morrison’s home in Grand-View, New York; digital video footage, shot by Ford Morrison on location at the Louvre in Paris in November 2006 in which Toni Morrison speaks with French and European radio and journalists as well as invited writers, choreographers, filmmakers, and musicians (William Forsythe, Charles Burnett, and French Slam poets, among others); original, hand-drawn, animation footage; archival still and motion pictures of critical topics and events in the American—and especially African-American—experience (from the blues to recent episodes of racial violence); and original musical and sound scores by Oberlin Conservatory of Music composers.
Despite Morrison’s incalculable cultural and social influence, no non-fiction motion pictures exist that seriously engage her work and ideas. Our film, intended for a national and worldwide audience through festivals and public television, addresses this gap. Made with her full support, The Foreigner’s Home illuminates the ongoing human struggle for liberation, identity, and community to which she speaks in her larger body of writing and explores and reaffirms her conviction—expressed in “The Foreigner’s Home,” as in her writing and public speaking—that art has the power to ignite the kind of open exchange essential to the life of any genuine community.
With The Foreigner’s Home, we hope to convey the substance and relevance of the incisive warning Morrison issued ten years ago: “The destiny of the twenty-first century will be shaped by the possibility or the collapse of a shareable world.”