I’d been wanting to see the movie Off and Running for the year or so since I’d heard of it. As the documentary telling the story of a headstrong black teen athlete adopted by white Jewish lesbians, it sounded right up my alley. Apparently the publicists for the film thought so too, since they found my blog and asked if Lee and I would like to see the movie. It opened in New York City this Friday and will air later this year on PBS. Last Thursday, Lee and I watched the dvd version the publicist sent us.
Avery Klein-Cloud, the teen whose story forms the core of the documentary, is trying to figure out her identity and her place in the world. Raised in a largely white Jewish environment and elementary school, Avery is now in a majority-black public school where she has to navigate the complicated identities she has as an extremely talented runner trying to fulfill her own potential and as a transracially adopted young black woman who is the daughter of lesbians (and a Jew, as made clear in a scene where one of her teammates sends our a fervent prayer in the name of Jesus while Avery prepares for a running meet). Partly to understand where she comes from (and thus, it seems clear, to feel a sense of more genuine belonging among her black friends) she tries to make contact with her birthmother in Texas. When that doesn’t give her the results her want and her older brother (also adopted, but more comfortable in his identity as a person of color) goes off to college, she ends up both creating and trying to avoid tension in her mothers’ home until she gets to the point where she decides to take off, leave school and leave home to see if that will help her put her troubles behind her.
I’m glad we saw this movie after the most recent time Rowan stayed with us, because I think it changed my sympathies a bit. I understand many of the reasons why Rowan ran away when he was here, but even that understanding didn’t make it much easier to sit at home and wait for him to return, hoping he was safe. I know he was trying to navigate his own white racial and cultural identity in relation to parts of his background story, trying to integrate his Christian beliefs with the ways Christianity has been used against him. I saw a bit of him in Avery while I watched the movie, but mostly I saw myself in Avery’s mothers. They tried to be supportive of her need to find her birth family even as they were scared she’d end up hurt by what they found. They tried to keep their faith in her even when they saw her hurting herself by skipping school or hurting them, skipping a meaningful ceremony. Again and again, they showed their love, their growing understanding that if she wanted her hair braided as a teen she’d have to do it at a salon rather by her mother as she had as a child. And then they waited and waited while she stayed away from their home, while they didn’t know where she was or what she might be doing. Although I only know a little of that feeling from the time we spent with Rowan (or should I say without him??) I immediately opened to it and identified with them.
At the same time, I can see some of why Avery finds her family life frustrating. Even though she and her brothers (the youngest of the three kids a Korean adoptee) obviously love each other and love being a part of their family, it’s also clearly hard on them to deal with their racial-adoption histories (basically inseparable) and the fact that they’re the children of lesbians in a world where that’s far from the norm. Her older brother claims not to be affected by being adopted and to have no interest in his birth family but then writes beautifully about how he’s going to study genetics and biology as a tribute of sorts to his biological brother, born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and cerebral palsy, whose destiny could easily have been Avery’s brother’s instead. And while Avery’s mothers are supportive and loving, they do say some things that from this side of the screen seem cringe-inducing even if good-intentioned.
As the movie ended and Avery ran on to the next phase of her life, Lee turned to me and said, “Is that all???” and I know what she means. The movie’s over, but it’s clear the larger story isn’t. This is just a tiny glimpse of Avery’s life, though there are many tantalizing hints of other stories that could be pursued further. For people living their lives steeped in adoption issues and questions about the creation of racial identity, there might not be much surprising or new here, although I still enjoyed seeing the details of a specific family. And unlike an adoption blog, everyone in the family gets a chance to tell some of his or her story!
I’m trying not to give away too much of the story, but I think there are so many great things in here. Avery talks to her classmates from her Jewish school and has to deal with their erasure of her blackness. She and the other student of color were both adoptees (both, in fact, adopted from Texas via the same agency) and it’s clear that as much as everyone else wants to tell them that neither of those descriptors should define them they’re still very meaningful to the girls themselves. Avery’s boyfriend is black and Christian (and maybe an immigrant from the islands, if my reading of his vowels is right) and while he clearly accepts and loves Avery, they have a lot of cultural differences to overcome in finding a balanced relationship. Avery has a lot of decisions to make about whether to try harder to connect with her birthmother, what decisions to make about college and her future, how to find a place for herself as a black woman within her family, what she would do about an unplanned pregnancy, how good her running can be and where it could take her. These aren’t all stories with easy explanations or simple endings because Avery’s very presence resists oversimplifications. She’s a strong, big-hearted, thoughtful woman with a lot to say about herself. I’d love to hear more from her, but I’m glad we got this taste.