Early in American Promise, the film’s co-directors (and spouses) Joe Brewster and Michele Stephenson explain their very simple goal as documentarians and as parents to one of the film’s two subjects: “we set out to document the boys’ entire education.” Twelve years later, they had not only consistently captured the experiences of their son Idris and his best friend Seun, but also shed light on the persistent academic achievement gap between African American males and their white peers.
Brewster and Stephenson’s son, Idris, is exceptionally bright and witty. His friend Seun is creative and reserved, with parents working multiple jobs to provide for him and his three siblings. At six, the two are accepted to New York’s prestigious Dalton School as the only children of color in their pre-school class, part of the administration’s much-discussed push for diversity.
Socially, this racial discrepancy has little apparent effect on the boys, with young Idris insisting it’s “never an issue.” Among friends at Dalton, he is right to say it isn’t; among neighborhood friends, however, it is. Idris’ club basketball team notes his speech, many saying he “talks like a white boy,” prompting him to create two personas: one for his classmates and one for his teammates. And thus marks the beginning of the boys’ racial consciousness, underlined later in one of the film’s most heartbreaking scenes: 10 year old Idris turns to his parents in tears, saying, “I would be better off if I was white, isn’t that true?” only to be met with silence as his mom and dad wonder the same thing.
American Promise walks the line between home movie and documentary, seamlessly incorporating interviews with family members and teachers as well as personal footage of the boys. While the interviews structure the film, home videos personalize it, allowing access to even the most intimate of moments. Furthermore, the directors never water down scenes in which they, as parents, seem controlling, overly demanding, or, at times, downright mean, adding further authenticity to their narrative.
Academically, Idris and Seun, though remarkably bright, struggle to keep up, often breaking down under the pressure of schoolwork and Dalton’s notoriously high expectations. We witness the anguish both boys experience as a result of the school, but we also see Brewster and Stephenson adding stress by stubbornly insisting that the boys overcome the racial achievement gap. Dalton’s administration stands baffled at the general disconnect between private schools and African American males in particular, and grapples to find ways to even the playing field. Ultimately, Seun leaves Dalton after eighth grade for Brooklyn’s predominately black Benjamin Banneker Academy, and the film continues to depict the two subjects’ differing experiences.
As filmmakers, Brewster and Stephenson studiously prove that an academic and cultural gap exists, and then, as parents, lament their personal frustrations at the lack of a clear answer, reason, or course of action. By the end, “American Promise” weaves its two tones into a beautiful, emotional look at a national problem through a very personal lens.