Film documents a broken American promise

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Idris Brewster and Seun Summers, two middle-class black kids, are about to enter Dalton School, one of the most prestigious prep schools in the nation. Dalton School provides a rigorous and ambitious program that prepares students for admission to elite colleges. The Dalton School’s vision for its students, like the film’s title, “American Promise,” echoes the national ethos of providing equal educational opportunity for every child. The reality, however, is that there are invisible obstacles for and a disparity in academic achievement among many minority groups, especially young black males.

Idris’ parents, Joe Brewster and Michele Stephenson, determined to ensure an optimistic academic future for their son, found it equally important to film their son and four other families in the Dalton School. When three of the families dropped out, however, the film focused on the lives of the two boys, Idris and Seun.

“In terms of a clear narrative, we didn’t have one,” said co-director Brewster in an interview with The Daily Californian. “It was going to celebrate diversity for a long period of time and maybe come to some conclusions that we really weren’t clear on.”

“American Promise” premiered at the 2013 Sundance Festival after 13 years of shooting during which more than 800 hours of footage was collected. Influenced by Michael Apted’s “Up” series, “American Promise” is a rare film that intimately documents the lives of Idris and Seun from kindergarten through their high school graduation. Like “Hoop Dreams,” a documentary that followed the lives of two black high school basketball prospects, the narrative that arises from this prolonged filmmaking process is both impressive in the scope of the progression and thought-provoking in its discussion of race and the education system.

From a young age, Idris and Seun quickly come to realize the disparities of race in their preparatory school from both students and faculty. At age 5, Idris says, “Everyone in Dalton, they keep asking me: ‘Are you rich, are you poor?’ ” Black males in the media are often portrayed either in impoverished circumstances in inner cities or in extravagant roles such as star athletes or rappers. These polarizing viewpoints play a role in the implicit biases and labeling of these young black boys while they grow up.

In one scene, Idris receives a two-day suspension for allegedly hitting a kid, something that he denied and that his parents found uncharacteristic of him. Idris, a naturally playful and cheerful kid, becomes identified by the school as difficult to manage. Even as their parents continue to push them forward, Idris and Seun start to internalize these labels and lose confidence in their abilities as they grow up.

Co-director Stephenson said, “In a way, the Dalton School is a microcosm of the larger society and a microcosm of the lower expectations, the willingness to punish more quickly (black boys) being seen as aggressive.”

Seun, feeling disconnected from the predominantly white population in Dalton, transfers to Benjamin Banneker Academy while his grades and test scores consistently drop. Compounded by problems with girls and sports, these issues become increasingly personal and relatable for audiences.

The recurring conflicts the families face go beyond institutions and race, cutting across familial structures. Stephenson and Brewster both play important roles in the documentary, as they are continually at odds with their son regarding his study habits and grades. By revealing the complexities of the role of race in educational institutions, the film naturally becomes a vehicle for opening discussions about the black male achievement gap.

Weaving in the most vulnerable and endearing moments in each boy’s life, the film offers a refreshingly genuine portrayal of black middle-class families — something that is rarely depicted in the mainstream media. As we move toward the denouement, when Idris and Seun receive their college acceptance letters, it becomes a bittersweet spectacle that is difficult to withdraw from as the credits roll.

Contact Fan Huang at [email protected].