Sure to be a vehicle for discussion amongst educators, parents, and students for years to come.
American Promise is a terrific film about racial imbalance and family dynamics, whose immense 13-year production process (from 1999 to 2012) was lengthy by design; filmmakers Joe Brewster and Michele Stephenson began documenting their son, Idris, and his best friend, Seun, from kindergarten through high school graduation. The two African-American boys are enrolled at a prestigious, predominantly white Manhattan prep school called Dalton, where–on top of the typical crushing stresses of school–they’re met with challenges the privileged white kids aren’t burdened with. Watching Idris and Seun grow up, their paths diverging over the years, is at once heart-rending, provocative, rousing, and confounding. It’s clear from even the film’s earliest footage that the boys are nice kids and brilliant young minds, so what’s impeding them from thriving at Dalton like they should?
It’s a question Stephenson and Brewster poke and prod relentlessly throughout the film. Idris, who’s extraordinarily perceptive and self-aware and works his ass off in school (his parents pile on the pressure, so he doesn’t really have a choice), somehow sits at the middle-to-bottom of the class in terms of performance. Shy, coyly clever Seun is struggling as well, and they’re both placed in a tutoring program that school administrators insist to their parents is quite normal. To the parents’ surprise, Idris and Seun are the only students in the entire school participating in the “normal” tutoring program. There’s something fishy going on here. It’s like there’s an invisible wall barring the boys from success that none of the school administrators want to acknowledge.
Idris gets made fun of for “talking white”, and even goes as far as to switch to a hip-hop vocabulary when he plays basketball with black kids from the projects. Seun’s mother shares a troubling anecdote, recalling her son brushing his gums until they bled in an attempt to make them pinker, like the white kids’. This is the kind of pressure black youths are under, and the ludicrousness of it isn’t lost on Stephenson and Brewster, who employ affecting moments like these to get their point across.
In an unforgettable scene, Idris asks his parents, rather pragmatically, if his life would be easier if he was white. It’s clear the question is rhetorical (he’s too smart for it not to be.) The three of them sit in silence, and you can hear the true answer ringing in the air, clear as crystal: “Yes.” Idris and Seun were accepted into Dalton as a part of a sort of diversity initiative for the school, a half-hearted attempt to assemble a student body that reflects the cultural diversity of the city. When Seun gets booted from Dalton due to academic underperformance and transferred to the Benjamin Banneker Academy, a predominantly black school, where he finds it much easier to fit in. One of the teachers at Banneker posits that diversity may in fact hinder education, in a way. It’s a fascinating idea, and one that’s supported by the school’s high success rate.
The boldness and scope of Americn Promise exceeds that of Hoop Dreams, it’s filmic cousin, but it shares that film’s poignant intimacy. There aren’t any interviews analysts or experts, picking apart Idris and Seun’s mental make-ups; all we see are raw, real moments with the boys and their families, shot and edited in a vérité style. The Brewsters’ message about the “black male achievement gap” resonates powerfully due to their slice-of-life approach. They aren’t afraid to show themselves in unflattering situations (Brewster is shown being particularly cruel to Idris in several scenes), as long as it serves the primary directive of the film.
American Promise is sure to be a vehicle for discussion amongst educators, parents, and students for years to come. Stephenson and Brewster’s sprawling filmic experiment is an achievement of both cinema and activism, and future studies of Seun and Idris’ complicated uphill battles will hopefully lead to societal and educational progress for young black males.