Outside Looking In is a wonderful film by Phil Bertelsen about transracial adoption that is both parts exploration and introspection. Phil shares his personal struggle with racial and cultural identity as a black boy being raised by white parents. Although they are caring, loving and nurturing, his parents are unable to provide Phil with the connection to African-American culture and community that he craves. When his white sister adopts a black boy, Phil sets out to be the black male role model that he never had for his nephew and namesake.
This is one of my favorite Remixes because it provided a unique opportunity to explore the evolution of identity, in terms of both race and masculinity. Eight years had passed since Outside Looking In was made, and I thought it would be interesting for Phil to revisit the feelings he expressed in the film. But I was especially interested in how his self-perception as a young man was impacted by his racial “identity crisis.” Notions of what a black man is (or is supposed to be) are so potent in American culture, it’s hard to imagine that Phil’s questions about his racial identity didn’t, at times, morph into questions about his masculinity. I wondered, too, how his nephew, “little” Phil’s views about race and his own identity as a young black man had evolved. In the film, he is a slim, soft-spoken nine-year-old boy who, when asked about racism, ingenuously replies that he’s never even heard the term. When I met him in New York, he was still soft-spoken, but was now over 6 feet tall with the build of a football player. It was hard to imagine that assumptions, expectations, or projections about black young men, whether positive or negative, had not pierced the colorblind world of his childhood.
There were two fortuitous events that made the Remix I envisioned possible, and transformed it into a particularly timely piece. Since we both live in New York, setting up an interview with Phil was easy enough, but his nephew lives in Arizona. There was no chance of doing an interview there! Nevertheless, I called Phil to discuss my idea for the Remix just days before the 4th of July weekend and, as luck would have it, he told me that his nephew was on his way to New York for the holiday. It was meant to be! This was also the summer of the first black democratic presidential nominee, Barack Obama. Like both Phils, the soon-to-be President of the United States is a biracial black man. This detail becomes central to what, for me, is the most poignant moment in the Remix.