The Foreigner's Home

"The relocation of peoples has ignited and disrupted the idea of home and expanded the focus of identity beyond definitions of citizenship to clarifications of foreignness." — Toni Morrison

What defines one’s home?

According to Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison and the film The Foreigner’s Home, home is quite the complex combination of things — including factors such as body, race, class, ethnicity and language.

Directed by Rian Brown and Geoffrey Pingree of Oberlin College, the documentary The Foreigner’s Home features intimate interviews and footage shot by Morrison’s son Ford during her 2006 exhibit that she co-curated at the Louvre, also titled The Foreigner’s Home. Timely in its conception as well as in the release of this documentary, the idea that home, humanity and art go hand-in-hand is something that Morrison brought to life when she presented slam poetry performers in front of Théodore Géricault’s iconic painting “The Raft of the Medusa." The film revisits this project to explore the role of art in discourse about identity and belonging — and it depicts Morrison's unshakeable faith in art. 

Jumping back and forth from visuals of the original exhibition, interviews with Morrison and jarring present-day clips, the film surveys the ways in which the argument over who is a foreigner and who belongs continues to fester. Powerful film archives from Hurricane Katrina beg the question of what home even means if people who have always been somewhere are suddenly estranged — labeled refugees — foreigners in their own home. Constantly referring back to visuals of Géricault’s painting or the illustration of a boat drifting farther and farther away, there are reminders of abandonment and hopelessness — being cut off, as Morrison describes it — that are prevalent throughout.

Although the documentary seemed to be told through an almost exclusively American lens, the truths were universal. In one of Morrison’s included monologues, she alludes to historic patterns of how governments always seem to construct their notion of identity on the destruction of an “other.” She continues, pressing that neither laws nor any god can stop them from this territorial sum game. This drew a subtle laugh from the crowd, likely in reaction to current attempts to, well, build walls and compete in territorial sum games.

The film rounds out the conversation on a hopeful note, however, finishing with a silencing illustration and select words from Morrison’s 1993 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, in which she recalls a favorite parable.

“Once upon a time, there was an old woman. Blind. Wise,” Morrison says in her speech. The woman is visited by two young people with a bird in their hands who pose the question, “Is the bird I am holding living or dead?” “I don’t know”, the old woman says. “I don’t know whether the bird you are holding is dead or alive, but what I do know is that it is in your hands. It is in your hands.”

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