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What Divides Us Also Unites Us: Morgan Freeman on 'The Story of Us'
October 17, 2017  | By Alex Strachan
 

Are there are any common traits that link human cultures and beliefs around the world?

That may seem like an odd question to ask in today’s increasingly fractured world, let alone try to answer in a six-part documentary series. There are challenges, and then there is the impossible.

Morgan Freeman wouldn’t let that dissuade him, however. If anything, he believes now is exactly the time to ask that question.

With 2016’s The Story of God, Freeman examined the role of religion in cultures around the world, to mixed effect.

Now, in a similarly ambitious — if similarly foolhardy — project, he has produced The Story of Us, also for National Geographic Channel. This time, his ambition is nothing less than to isolate and define the cultural, sociological, and psychological underpinnings that connect us all, whether it’s the American Midwest or the Omo River Valley in Ethiopia (right).

As with The Story of God, defining what is unseen and then visualizing it for a worldwide TV audience, is a tall order. Empathy, self-sacrifice, appealing to the better angels in society – all the service of our shared humanity is hard to convey on the screen. The temporal can’t always be described in literal, worldly terms.

And so Freeman resolved to take a journey around the world and let others tell their stories of overcoming hardship through the help of others. From Freeman’s point-of-view, The Story of Us is a kind of Pilgrim’s Progress for the Internet age, in which he listens more than talks. The Story of Us is about the forces that both unite and divide us, thirst for power vs. the power of love, the strength of belief vs. the spirit of rebellion — the universal quest for both spiritual and personal freedom.

As with Pilgrim’s Progress, it’s the journey that matters. The destination is elusive. Freeman would be the first to admit The Story of Us provides no all-encompassing answers. That would be pat and condescending to viewers looking for something more meaningful than a simple roadmap to the meaning of life.

“I’ve always been curious,” Freeman told reporters at this past summer’s meeting of the Television Critics Association in Beverly Hills, CA. “Some people may call it being nosey. But that is probably the driving force behind wanting to do this kind of material and loving it. It puts you face-to-face with people who are way outside your life experience.”

That said, Freeman relied on much from his own life experience in framing conversations with people from other cultures he met for the first time.

“I grew up in the South, in a single-parent situation. I had plenty of opportunities to take the wrong path. Knock on wood, I didn’t. When I sit with people (who’ve overcome adversity) I have that exact feeling, that there but for the grace of really good luck could have gone I. ‘Do something for nothing.’ That reminds me so much of Nelson Mandela. Your task in life is probably to do as much as you can for others, for nothing.”

Freeman was inspired in part by Planet Earth. Freeman noted that in an episode he watched just hours before facing reporters, he saw how, in the animal world, parents are utterly devoted to their young. Filial love doesn’t just leave us with a fuzzy, warm feeling, Freeman said: It’s the only way life persists.

That’s not to say the same rules of behavior translate across all cultures, Freeman admitted. That’s part of what made The Story of Us so hard to make.

“Human society is a tapestry,” he said. “It’s not made from the exact same fabric. So these stories, these people, are in my own life, a whole other pattern for me to live in and believe in. I find it very exciting.”

Freeman knows some people may not feel the same way about shared cultures.

“There is always going to be a contingent, albeit a small one, who will roll their eyes at do-gooders, tree-huggers, people who, for one reason or another, thinking differently, have a higher aspiration. When people get disillusioned, they get fearful for their own future. This is happening in a lot of places in the world today, and particularly here at home, with the innovations in technology that are taking jobs away from humans. So we are left to ask ourselves: Now what am I going to do? These things create fear. And fear creates tension. And tension creates friction. And there you have it.”

Freeman produced The Story of Us through his production company, Revelations Entertainment, which he co-founded with Invictus producer Lori McCreary. Through the Wormhole and Story of God executive producer, James Younger, performed similar duties on The Story of Us.

Freeman sees his TV documentary work as opening a new chapter on a life primarily spent in feature films.

“In film, I just need to belong,” he said. “I grew up in the movies, watching them, and not seeing enough of me. None of me, in fact. My film career was actually predicated on not being able to see me. This is a completely different set of rules — rules, I guess, I can use to live by. What I’m getting the most joy out of now is meeting all these different people, sitting down and having a one-to-one conversation with them and realizing that, gee, I just talked to someone from the other side of the world. And they’re pretty much saying the same thing. They’re just using a different language.”

 

‘The Story of Us’ airs Wednesdays on National Geographic Channel at 9 p.m. ET. The previous week’s episode is repeated an hour earlier at 8 p.m. ET. Previously aired episodes can be streamed from National Geographic Channel’s website.

 
 
 
 
 
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