As a black child adopted by white parents in the 1970s and raised in a predominantly white suburb, Director Phil Bertelsen's adolescence was shaped by fond memories of a loving family as well as by difficult periods of self-examination and self-doubt. With the film OUTSIDE LOOKING IN: Transracial Adoption in America, Bertelsen goes behind the camera to introduce three families with transracially adopted children of three different generations, growing up in three different regions of the country. The director examines his 11-year-old nephew's adoption and also reveals the dramatic story of a white couple trying to adopt a black child today.
Bertelsen's sister Aline and her two transracially adopted sons represent the second generation of transracial adoptions for the Bertelsen family. Finding few opportunities for his nephew, Philip, to develop an African American identity in his hometown of Tucson, Arizona, Bertelsen brings Philip to visit him in Harlem, New York. There he encourages him to explore and proclaim a black identity of his own, with results that convey important lessons of identity and self-awareness to both uncle and nephew separately.
The viewer also accompanies a third family - a Midwestern white couple - as they meet an African-American woman who is putting her two-month-old son up for adoption. The film records a rare and emotionally powerful moment - the exchange of a baby from birth parent to adoptive parent. The filmmaker's own narrative voice-over weaves these stories together, conveying the ways transracial adoption is both deeply personal and broadly political.
Each family's story explores a different aspect of the many complex issues that arise when child and parent do not share the same racial background. These voices - sometimes confident, sometimes questioning, and at times frustrated - narrate a 30-year history of transracial adoptions in America. Each family's experience is influenced by differences in time (adoption in the 1970s, 1980s and the year 2001), place (New Jersey, Arizona, and Illinois) and approach (color-blind or color-conscious). Bertelsen, as both adoptee and filmmaker, provides a unique perspective that goes beyond the personal.
As America struggles to understand and address its own complex racial history, OUTSIDE LOOKING IN compels viewers to get past the traditional "pro versus con" debate. Bertelsen captures the complexity of being physically bonded to one race and emotionally bonded to another. This approach allows audiences to enter this charged discussion and decide for themselves how best to raise a child across racial lines.
In the film, Bertelsen explores his own conflicted ideas about where and to whom he and others like him belong. He explains, "On a personal level, I recognized my adoptive family as the people I love and trust most in the world. Yet growing up, many made me feel I was out of place in the back of the family station wagon. I could see that I was black, but I couldn't understand why that meant I belonged to a community aside from the one in which I lived - that is, the black community with which I had virtually no contact. As a child these distinctions made little sense to me. Over the years, I found myself wondering which factors - physical, emotional, historical, social - determine where I belong. Unable to find suitable answers in others, I looked inward. The tension between an internal and external identity, between a cultural legacy and a family history, inspired me to make this documentary."
OUTSIDE LOOKING IN is particularly timely, as the 1990s have been punctuated by a new wave of transracial adoptions. The film supplies a voice to those directly affected by adoption policies and explores larger topics facing our society: race, family and identity.