Why Morgan Freeman's globe-spanning Nat Geo series 'The Story of Us' hits home

Mandi Bierly
Deputy Editor, Yahoo Entertainment
Morgan Freeman meets with Megan Phelps-Roper, former Westboro Baptist Church social media manager, who explains how she turned her back on the church. (Photo: Justin Lubin/National Geographic)

Morgan Freeman has never shied away from asking the big questions, whether it be ending his long-running, Emmy-nominated Science Channel series Through the Wormhole with “Is gun crime a virus?” or launching the Emmy-nominated National Geographic series The Story of God with “What happens when we die?” He’s at it again with the Oct. 11 premiere of Nat Geo’s The Story of Us With Morgan Freeman — a six-part global journey that, at a time when the world is so divided, explores the forces at the core of our common humanity: freedom, peace, love, social division, power, and rebellion.

Among his 36 interviewees are three presidents (the current leaders of Rwanda and Bolivia, Paul Kagame and Evo Morales, as well as Bill Clinton), two Nobel Peace Prize winners (Rigoberta Menchu Tum, an advocate for the rights of indigenous peoples, and Mohamed ElBaradei, former director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency), and individuals including Megan Phelps-Roper, who left the Westboro Baptist Church, founded by her grandfather; Daryl Davis, a black blues musician who tries to befriend members of the Ku Klux Klan; and Victoria Khan, a transgender Afghan woman who first felt free when, as an orphaned boy, she was liberated from a jihadist camp and asked to wear a burka to cross the border so that she wouldn’t be separated from her younger sister.

Yahoo Entertainment spoke with Freeman and fellow Story of Us executive producers Lori McCreary and James Younger for a preview.

Yahoo Entertainment: You tell 36 different stories this season. How did you decide on the six themes they would fall into?

Lori McCreary: They morphed during the process.

James Younger: We thought about all these basic human drives, emotions, feelings. So we had love, this idea of peace, freedom, power, and we’re like, “We should do a film about happiness,” but then we couldn’t really find enough drama in happiness. So we dropped that, and we ended up making a film that we were very happy we did, which ended up being called “Us and Them” [premiering Nov. 8], which is about where tribalism comes from and how we can get around tribalism.

I don’t know that there’s going to be a more timely hour on TV when that episode airs. What did you learn from those conversations with Megan Phelps-Roper and Daryl Davis, in particular?

Younger: Daryl Davis has spent time trying to connect with people who are KKK members and get them to change their ways. Racism in America is actually a form of culture war, isn’t it?

Morgan Freeman: I would say yes. Because I always sort of questioned the separation when people talk about culture. There’s “black culture” in America. What exactly is that? And is it in opposition to “white culture” in America? Well, again, this is that tribalism thing.

Younger: In some ways, part of culture is real. A big part of culture, though, is an invention of “the other.” So if one group says, “You’re not our culture” — be you black or white, be you a Muslim in Bosnia or a Serb in Bosnia, be you a member of this Christian group or not — a lot of it is an invention. There are things we’re connected by genuinely in culture that are meaningful, but they tend to be just additive. Whereas when we talk about culture wars, you’re assigning negative stereotypes with people who are not like you. And that’s something that has always been happening in human history, but it seems like it’s getting worse today.

McCreary: Let’s just take Rwanda, for example. There wasn’t just a stopping of the genocide; there was a reconciliation of the two sides [Tutsi and Hutu], so to speak. And they came together in a way that seems like it’s going to be lasting. It’s interesting to me that in America we did have kind of a coming together —  there were laws put into place like now there’s no segregation and all those kind of things — but I’m not sure there’s ever been this kind of healing process on a national level like there was in Rwanda, from the leadership on down. And I have been thinking just recently how I wonder what it would take in America to have like [President] Paul Kagame in Rwanda, who basically forced entire communities to come together. Like what would it take in America to actually have real connection between people who right now seem like they’re so far apart?

Younger: But there are examples of that in the “Us and Them” episode. Social media is the reason Megan Phelps-Roper left the Westboro Baptist Church that she’d grown up in and grown up indoctrinated with this idea that you hated homosexuals, hated —

McCreary: Anyone that wasn’t in her church, even other Christians.

Younger: We now probably associate social media more with an increase of animosity and vitriol, but she was able to connect with a Jewish man in Israel. His name is David Abitbol [founder of the blog Jewlicious]. He engaged with her in a very calm, fulsome way and started a conversation, and through social media they were able to share pictures with each other and they began to humanize one another. She was able to see him as a human being; he saw her as a human being. And that was a conduit to get over this culture war that we’re in.

McCreary: We need millions of those conversations to happen.

Younger: Daryl Davis and Megan Phelps-Roper are two of the pioneers of that, I would say. We need to follow their example.

Freeman: I think we would have had a reconciliation period here in this country, but they shot him before we had time to work on the healing aspects of it. It just worsened the situation, if you ask me. Because I live in the South, and boy…

Are there any stories that, even after you heard them from the people who lived them, you’re still trying to process in your own mind?

Freeman: Rwanda.

Younger: Rwanda. Mariya and Filbert.

Freeman: Holy cow.

McCreary: This Hutu man, [Filbert], was responsible for killing [Tutsi] Mariya’s [husband and brother-in-law, and two of her sons]. It took her a couple of years [to forgive him], but now they work and live right near each other [in a reconciliation village] and they’re friends. That is still — I can’t imagine being her and being able to look at him every day and know that he’s the reason that your family’s not around.

Younger: We’re not that good at forgiveness. And I know that there’s a recent story that’s been going around in the news about the woman [Michelle Jones] who had been convicted of killing her child. She was 14 and had an unwanted pregnancy and ended up abandoning her child [when he was 4], and it was killed. She went to jail for 20 years, remade her life, got out, and got a place at Harvard [in a doctoral program]. And then [her admittance was overturned]. When [some] people found out what she’d done, they couldn’t forgive her for it. Even though she atoned and she realized what she did was terrible, we can’t forgive. And I’m not saying that we should forgive that, but I’m just saying that as an example of forgiveness comes hard to us.

One of the stories I’m struggling to process is that of the Hamar tribe in Ethiopia. [Before a young man runs over the backs of standing bulls in a coming-of-age ceremony, women are whipped with sticks to show their love and support for him.] I appreciated that you, Morgan, wanted to hear from the women themselves that this was their choice, that they were encouraging the men to whip them. The translated answer was basically, it’s what’s always been done — it’s necessary. [“So it’s the culture. When your brother leaps, or when your uncle leaps, then you have to get whipped. For them to feel like he’s jumping, you have to be whipped.”] We’re being told it’s empowering for those women, but that’s not the most empowering response. Why did you want to include that ceremony in the episode “The Power of Love” [airing Oct. 25], and what do you hope people take away from it?

Freeman: I’d like to know, what got you started on this line of demonstration?

McCreary: Who was the first?

Freeman: Yeah. I will decide to accept pain, just to show you that I appreciate the danger that you’re putting yourself in in order for us all to survive…

Younger: It was very difficult to watch. To us, it completely seems abusive, and maybe it is abusive.

Freeman: But [to them], it’s what they require.

McCreary: And it’s also a badge of honor. The women who have the most scars on their backs are lifted up, basically, in that culture. When we were talking about it, we were like, “Really? We’re going to show this?” But we really were trying to show the different types of how people show love. They’re really there to support the boys as they’re moving into their manhood. And it would be interesting to find out where it started. And also, everyone from the outside is judging what they’re doing.

Younger: Yeah, the Ethiopian government tried to stop it. “This is bad advertising!” But they’re like, “We’ve always done this, and we want to do it.” The women really were in charge that day.

Freeman: Yes.

Younger: They’re singing, and they’re dancing — hours and hours and hours. They are driving the agenda that day. So it’s confusing to our Western eyes to see it. But what I thought was powerful about it was it is a really clear manifestation of “You sacrifice for love.” We all do that. Parents do that for their kids. You do it for your brother, your sister, whoever. You do things for your family that are not in your own interest. And if we only lived by our own self-interest, what would we be? We would be what we call animals — we’d just be crocodiles in the Nile. So that’s the root of something which is really fascinating about human society: We choose to do things that are not good for us, but they keep our group together. It’s that “take one for the team” idea, so it’s really important to human society. That’s just a very shocking manifestation of it.

The episode includes a warning about “cultural nudity” for that segment, but I was surprised that there wasn’t one for “cultural violence.”

McCreary: It’s odd to me. I don’t know if it has to do in terms of the FCC. But there is a lot more violence in American television than there is nudity. Nudity is looked at as “ugh,” but you can chop somebody’s head off and you don’t have to have a warning. So I think it has to do more with what is more normally accepted here versus what might be offensive to your kids. They’re used to seeing CSI, unfortunately.

Another discussion that is incredibly timely is with Mohamed ElBaradei, who in Oct. 18’s “The Fight for Peace” says nuclear weapons are, in the long run, not a deterrent from war but rather increase the likelihood of it.

Freeman: We’ve created and are continuing to create weapons that have the capacity to eliminate us from the planet … so as not to eliminate ourselves from the planet?

McCreary: To protect ourselves from being eliminated by somebody else. When is it going to stop?

Younger: He’s very pessimistic about it, right?* He says we’re here by good luck [rather than by good management, quoting former Defense Secretary William J. Perry]. I don’t think our luck is getting any better.

Freeman: Well that’s why earlier [today] I spoke about [how] the machinery that will control us will decide: “You people are emotional. This can’t happen. If you want to stay here, this is the way we have to do it. I will clamp down on your ass.” [Laughs]

McCreary: “I’m not gonna let you push that button.”

Morgan Freeman meets with Victoria Khan, a transgender Afghan woman, who discusses her harrowing childhood and her journey to personal freedom. (Photo: Justin Lubin/National Geographic)

Some of the stories you’re hearing in the series, Morgan, are very emotional. In the Oct. 11 premiere, “The March of Freedom,” I think I saw tears in your eyes when you were speaking with Shin Dong-hyuk [believed to be the only prisoner to escape from a North Korean labor camp]. After sharing how little attachment he felt to his parents from being born in the camp, he started talking about his wife being pregnant now and seeing for the first time a parent who’s able to show love by clothing and feeding her child. What was the most emotional you got speaking with someone?

Freeman: What got to me most in those kind of interviews was the fact that I was talking about someone’s childhood. Shin’s childhood. Victoria Kahn’s childhood.

Younger: Izidor [Ruckel], the Romanian orphan [turned activist], was another example of that [in “The Power of Love”].

Freeman: Oh, gosh. Yes.

McCreary: It’s so inspiring that they decided to turn around their experiences and help other people in their later years.

Younger: Where do you get that when you don’t have a parent to show you how to do that, yet you somehow find within yourself that power, the strength to overcome what Shin did, what Victoria did, what Izidor did? It’s really a testament to the human spirit, the fact that people can find that within themselves.

The Story of Us With Morgan Freeman premieres Oct. 11 at 9 p.m. on National Geographic.

*Mohamed ElBaradei does also tell Freeman in the show that looking at young people gives him hope: “They are color-blind, religious-blind, ethnic-blind. The day we treat each other as part of the same human family, that if somebody dies in Darfur I will react the same way if somebody dies in L.A., the same day we will end nuclear weapons.”

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