Toni Morrison Documentary Questions What It Means to Be a Foreigner
Last weekend at the Cleveland Cinematheque the makers of The Foreigner’s Home, a documentary about acclaimed writer and Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison, presented the film for the first time since Morrison’s death last summer. This somber fact made the film all the more powerful, as much of it features Morrison speaking directly to the camera, her words potent, compelling, urgent, and prescient. Speaking in the film back in 2006, she prophetically states:
“Foreigners are constructed as the sum total of the nation’s ills….We would be not merely remiss but irrelevant if we did not address the doom currently faced by millions of people reduced to animal, insect, or polluted status by nations with unmitigated, unrepentant power to decide who is a stranger and whether they live or die at or far from home.”
At the time Morrison couldn’t have known about our country’s current border crisis, but what the film proves over and over is the relentlessness of this terrible pattern – the history of genocide and war works in waves, and nations do this by creating others, strangers, foreigners as targets, just as they have done for centuries. But it is only through art that we can find peace.
The film developed out of footage of Morrison during her time guest-curating an exhibition at the Louvre in Paris in 2006, also called A Foreigner’s Home. Her son Ford Morrison filmed much of the events surrounding the show, but it was not until years later, through mutual friend and colleague the famous director Jonathan Demme (who has also sadly passed), that Rian Brown and Geoff Pingree, both faculty members at Oberlin College, were asked to look at Ford Morrison’s footage and try to make something with it.
What started as just a compilation of the Louvre footage, blossomed into a much larger project, including stock footage, illustrations, and going back to Morrison to humbly ask her to sit for an updated interview almost ten years after the exhibit in Paris. She agreed (much to their surprise) and the film features conversations between Morrison and writer Edwidge Danticat, one of the artists asked to participate in the Louvre exhibit, in Morrison’s home. As they speak, you learn about the exhibition, which not only included famous paintings from the venerable museum’s collection – but immigrant slam-poets and street artists that Morrison invited into the hallowed halls of this staid institution to perform. And unlike the predominantly dead white male artists featured on the walls, the voices of the contemporary world were brought in, foreigners all, to lend their voices to the larger conversation (And this was years before Beyoncé and Jay-Z set the video for “Apesh*t” video in the Louvre, a move that also put a black cultural moment into this traditionally white space).
Morrison centered her exhibition around a single painting: The Raft of the Medusa by Théodore Géricault.
Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa is an imposing painting, a behemoth of gore, measuring over 23 feet long and 16 feet tall. Its significance in the history of art is largely due to the grisly subject. The gigantic canvas shows an actual event that had happened only years before it was painted, and that was something never seen before on the walls of the Paris Salon. It was a calculated move for the young artist, who did more than turn heads by showing such a realistic harrowing scene. Large paintings such as this were reserved for idealized classical and historical subjects, not scenes from real life. The Medusa was a French frigate bound for Western Africa, when its incompetent aristocrat captain made a blunder and ran the ship aground. The chaos that ensued involved his safe removal to a life boat along with the other officers, while the common men and enslaved people aboard quickly assembled a make-shift raft from the wreckage. At first the lifeboats promised to tow them, but soon after they broke their word, cut the ropes and left the 150 souls on the small raft to fend for themselves. Violence ensued as the men struggled to remain afloat, hacking each other with swords and axes, the strongest actually pushed the weaker men off, and those that were left had to resort to cannibalism to survive. After 13 days at sea, only 15 were alive, and the event became an international sensation. A survivor wrote a best-seller about his experience, and the papers were filled with terrifying accounts of the carnage.
Géricault became obsessed, going as far as building an actual scale model of the raft in his studio, and borrowing bits and pieces of cadavers from the morgue (including a dismembered head) to get the colors of the decay correct. But even after hundreds of sketches of different moments in the tale, from the beginning, to the violent middle, to the end of the narrative as the survivors climb onto the rescue ship, he chose a scene of tremendous pathos and hope. At the top of the large compositional triangle of tangled limbs and bodies is a man waving to a ship in the far distance, whose dark skin dramatically punctuates the artist’s message: we are here, and we are all the same – and it is those that chose to discard us, leave us at sea – those that marked us as undesirable, that made us others, they cannot destroy our spirit. Ultimately, hope wins. But Morrison warns us not to get comfortable, because it will happen again. And it has – so many times.
The most harrowing footage in the film is from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (where people who were home became foreigners in their own country, abandoned, rejected, and worse). Likewise chilling is video of contemporary rafts – scenes of refugees clinging to the sides of inflatable rafts adrift in the Mediterranean, pulling themselves through barbed wire, children crying, exhausted mothers, and all of the terrors of the Raft of Medusa echo through it all.
But there are also powerful moments of joy and beauty in the film, the only antidote to this horror. Particularly moving was the French slam poet D’ De Kabal, whose basso profundo voice sounds like an instrument. Standing before the Raft of the Medusa, his words could be those of the men on the raft behind him:
“We / We are here / dormant / in transit / our blank stares facing the distance /… we are from another world / reality”
The most moving of all was a clip of the breakdancer Lil’ Buck performing to Camille Saint-Saens’ “The Swan”, played by Yo Yo Ma (it literally brought me to tears, I highly recommend you take a look). Throughout the film Morrison demonstrates how artists use different vernaculars to address otherness – slam poetry, hip hop, rap – the voices of the stranger are many and far reaching.
The question of the foreigner, and constructions of foreignness, to me seems even more urgent today than it did in 2006 – but as Morrison is quick to point out, it is sadly a universal: “It may be that the most defining characteristic of our times is that again, again, walls and weapons feature as prominently now as they once did in medieval times.”
As her words flow through the film, I can’t get enough of them. I cannot emphasize enough that it is an unparalleled treasure to have her speaking like this – immortalized for all. I’m reminded of how lucky I was to meet and hear Julian Stanczak speak about art here in Cleveland before he passed. It was one of the most profound experiences of my life, and I know for a fact that Morrison has had the same effect on countless others. The fact that even two individuals lived on this earth with this power is beyond uplifting, and is the only way to fight the terror and violence of this world. We are all foreigners somewhere, and we all have the specter of a Raft of the Medusa inside us, or the potential to become part of something that horrifying. I wouldn’t say it’s a hopeful film, but Morrison shows us that the only answer is through art, and that’s enough for me.
“My faith in the world of art is not irrational and it’s not naive. 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. My faith in their work exceeds my admiration for any other discourse.”