Brewster and Stephenson talk ‘American Promise’, Raw & Revealing Moments Of Two Families
Filmmakers Joe Brewster and Michele Stephenson turned their cameras on their son, Idris, and his friend, Seun, in 1999, documenting their lives for the next 13 years as the boys navigated the stressful environment of a prestigious, predominantly white prep school called Dalton. The result is American Promise, an enlightening documentary about the struggles of black youths in an environment that’s overwhelming both academically and socially. Idris and Seun’s ability to thrive in the halls of Dalton becomes increasingly stunted as the stresses of schoolwork are compounded by the school’s racial imbalance.
The probing, thoughtful film is nearly as much about Brewster and Stephenson as it is Idris and Seun, as the cameras capture the two families in raw, revealing, sometimes unflattering moments. The filmmaker couple sat with us in San Francisco to talk about the lengthy filming process, whittling 800 hours of footage down to 2, handing the camera over to the boys, their outreach campaign, and much more.
American Promise opens this Friday in the Bay Area. For more information and additional screenings, visit americanpromise.org
How does it feel to be finished shooting the film? After such a long filming process, it must feel good to finally be able to screen it for audiences and let it out into the world.
Joe: We’re involved in this outreach campaign, which is going to be a year-and-a-half to two years long. We’re meeting with families, teachers, and kids. We’re a little bit overwhelmed by how big it’s become.
So the campaign has become bigger than you thought it would be?
Michele: We anticipated that we would get community screenings, but the theatrical release has started to gain a life of its own. From the last week of opening, we’ve had over 300 requests to screen the film. I don’t think we were ready for these type of requests.
Joe: That’s why we exist now, to make sure we’re talking to people about change. We’re trying to pace ourselves.
Michele: There’s a level of satisfaction of being finished. It’s always moving to hear people’s reactions. That’s also been overwhelming. It’s really exciting, but at the same time, there’s a certain level of responsibility on our end in terms of being present with the film and engaging audiences. We’re ready to take that on, and we feel it’s important for us to really focus on what happens when the lights go up after the film is seen.
How was Sundance, with the boys being there with you?
Joe: They had a great time.
Michele: Sundance was magical, for them especially.
Joe: The boys loved the free stuff. (laughs) That was their first look at small-scale celebrity.
Did they embrace it?
Joe: Absolutely! They realized that it doesn’t take them very far, because they both have to get back to school. No one knew them at school, but that subsequently changed. We screened it at Occiental College (where Idris attends.) Idris was very anxious, but it’s the kind of environment where kids are chosen because they’re critical thinkers. The issue is very relevant there, in terms of the diversity at that institution. They’re known for their diversity, but they’re struggling with faculty diversity. The film’s become a vehicle for discussion there.
Michele: The boys are really embracing this second phase of the project. In some ways, they’re probably having more fun with it than we are, because we have to keep thinking about the dollars. (laughs) They’ve gotten on BET, so that’s been exciting for them.
So, they enjoy this second phase more than filming?
How old are the boys at the beginning of the film?
All I could think as I was watching the beginning of the film was, “These little kids are smarter than me!”
Joe: We were thinking the same thing, that they were smarter than us. (laughs) They’re world experts in manipulating us. We kind of felt like we were their pawns at times. We have other family members, and they were impacted by the film, too. Our youngest son is at home, and he’s a little upset because we met with his favorite radio broadcaster, Kai Ryssdal of NPR’s Marketplace. That tells you a little bit about him…(laughs)
When we started out making films 20-something years ago, we never thought we’d be at this point, where there’s an issue that’s relevant almost everywhere you go. It could possibly make a difference how these boys are seen or encouraged to be a part of a greater society. That’s exciting for us. We can rest in peace now, right?
Michele: (laughs) Also, as filmmakers, it’s so satisfying to start getting validation for your work as a piece of art. We sought out to push the envelope narratively with the film and took a lot of risks. We’re processing the reactions to it.
Joe: I met Michele about 21 years ago. I wanted to be a filmmaker as a young child. It was just magical for me. I recall writing Walt Disney a letter when I was 12, telling him how moved I was about some cartoon. I asked him to make a film with a black person in the lead. I waited for his response, but it never came.
Michele: For me, a lot of it comes from wanting to create complicated characters on the screen. To me, documentary is an art form; I don’t see it as a journalistic endeavor. It has a clear point of view with clear aesthetics that are chosen, and the raw material you use is what you shot, in terms of direct cinema. The writing happens in the editing.
How much footage did you have to work with?
Michele: 800 hours.
When did you start editing?
Michele: It happened in phases. At the end of the lower-school period, we did a run of cutting material to see what we had. Then we stopped for a while and looked for money. The highest paid team members in film are the editors, so you have to raise money to be able to afford the ones that can really make a difference in the work that you’re doing.
Joe: We’ve tried to skimp on that before, and it never works.
Michele: We were able to hire one for a couple of months every year, so she would cut certain material for us both for fundraising and to get a sense for what we had. We went full-blown in the last two years of our shoot, and we had a team of editors working with us. The first year was just one assistant editor who organized our footage in a way that made sense chronologically but also for characters and potential story lines. The last year, we had a team of three led by a seasoned vérité editor. She came in and really helped us with structure, scene development, and character arcs, which were really important for us to understand. How were we going to be portrayed? What did that mean in terms of the overall arc of the film? We gave them a mandate, not to censor themselves around how we would be portrayed. In the editing process, they just needed to make the scenes work.
Joe: If you take those 800 hours, probably 400 of them were shot in the last 3 years.
So, it ramped up a lot in the end.
Michele: It ramped up a lot because we got more money. (laughs) Also, there was a sense that this was the last stretch.
Joe: I think it also ramped up for other reasons. The boys were in two separate environments. We changed our way of shooting. We were no longer shooting just events; we’d park ourselves in an environment, because that’s where you get the best vérité footage. For example, when they went to Africa, they were there a week. That’s a lot of footage. Michele went to Panama with a cameraman. That’s not in the film. We went to LA with a shooter. Because there were things happening where we had a dedicated shooter there for a long period of time, the footage seemed to increase exponentially.
Michele: We made strategic decisions, because both boys saw us as authority figures, especially Idris. Their reactions were more to us as parents being involved in their lives as opposed to filmmakers, but it kind of blended. We ended up bringing on cinematographers who were young, of color, and male, to just hang out with them. We also attempted to give them more agency and show them how to use a camera. Both of them have material that ended up in the final film.
Joe: Our youngest son shot some striking footage during the memorial service for…
Michele: I don’t know if you want to give up that plot point…
Joe: What do you mean, “plot point”?! (laughs)
Joe: I don’t mind giving up anything.
Michele: Ok. (laughs)
Joe: At the memorial service for Seun’s younger brother, our younger son shot a lot of the B-roll.
Talk a bit more about your interest in portraying complicated characterizations.
Michele: It’s important for us to be able to transcend stereotypes, so that’s where visual storytelling can be really powerful.
Joe: Yesterday, we had a meeting with a good friend of ours, an actor named Roger Guenveur Smith. He was analyzing the film and memorized the film in terms of all of the subtext. He’s finding stuff that we didn’t eve see.
Michele: That’s what’s nice about art. People can look at something and be able to analyze and make connections that were not intentionally there.
That must be gratifying.
Michele: Yes. Oh my god. Yeah.
Joe: He was looking at the scene where the boys are handling baby chicks in the classroom. He began to read the signs in the room; “Fragile”, “Handle With Care”.
Michele: For him, that’s basically the setup for the film, what those words implicate for the boys.
You had 800 hours of what are essentially home videos. Somehow, you whittled it down to 135 minutes. Was it painful at times to have to cut out so many memories?
Michele: Oh, yeah.
Joe: We were committed to non-chronological editing. We ultimately had to go in order. We basically decided, “We’re going to take every bit of footage that can be cut into a vérité scene, and cut it.” We strung it together in two threads: One was a Summers family thread, and one was a Brewster family thread. We tended to have significantly more footage of us. It ended up being about 33 hours, with 20 hours being of our family. We realized that a lot of it was redundant and that each family could tell part of a story.
Michele: When we ended up intercutting, we realized that there were things both families didn’t need to say about the same thing. But, that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t painful to get rid of certain things. Each scene has its own intricacies that are of great value, but you have to separate yourself. It’s a real subtle dance that you have to work out, and it’s really painful. We have material that’s ready to be shared on other platforms. We have this digital ecosystem that we’ve developed, where the website is the hub where we’re putting quite a lot of those scenes online for people to watch and discuss. It’s at americanpromise.org. We have some of that material divided by age, so if you want to see particular material of Idris or Seun at age 8, you can find that. That’s the benefit of our original approach of wanting everything to be cut. It allowed us to have this material that’s not just raw footage; it’s cut.
Joe: We’ve allowed artists to take the footage and play with it. We have artists who have created a digital installation where you can point to certain words, and it will create a 2-5 minute narrative using footage that wasn’t in the film.
So, the project’s still evolving!
Michele: Pretty much! (laughs) It’s evolving in the sense that we have this engagement campaign. We’ve been fortunate enough to get support from Open Society Foundation’s Campaign for Black Male Achievement, the Kellogg Foundation, and Fledgling Fund to maximize our impact through using material both inside the film and outside of the film to reach youth educators and parents. We’ve developed specific guides for educators that include modules that were developed by an organization called Teaching Tolerance, to get educators to bring issues of implicit bias or unconscious racism to their awareness. There’s a facilitator’s guide that was developed by Active Voice here in the Bay Area to get youth to discuss these issues.
Joe: We also have mobile app for parents that was initially developed in a workshop with the Bay Area Video Coalition. Now, we’re ready to launch it in January. We are filmmakers, but filmmaking would not describe what we do accurately. We’re trying to create a digital space where we can engage people and change people’s minds.