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Review: American Promise

By Jennifer Dworkin

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(Joe Brewster & Michèle Stephenson, U.S., 2013)

When filmmaking couple Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson’s 5-year-old son Idris and his best friend, Seun, both African-American, are accepted into the highly prestigious and almost exclusively white Dalton School, the proud parents embark on an amazingly ambitious project to document the two boys’ entire educations. Spanning 13 years, the resulting film offers a coming-of-age story rivaled perhaps only by Michael Apted’s Up series in scope. American Promise is compelling both for its intimate focus on the lives of these middle-class families and in what it has to say about the struggle for identity of even the most talented African-American boys in a society that still often fears and dismisses them.

American Promise documentary

The film is shaped crucially by the tension between the filmmakers’ dual roles: they are parents armed with a camera, observers yet with the most intense stake in their young son’s success. Because Brewster and Stephenson have had the great courage to expose their own mistakes and excesses along the way, the film is revelatory as an embedded report from the front lines of parenting.

Little Idris and Seun are tremendously engaging subjects—bright, funny boys who can hardly contain their excitement as they pass through the imposing doors of Dalton for the first day of kindergarten. Both sets of parents, too, have high hopes for their children’s education, though, revealingly, they express them in very different ways. Seun’s mother, Stacey, an ER nurse with a second job and four children, hopes that Dalton will allow her son to “feel comfortable around white folks”—as she concedes she never has herself. Idris’s parents, one a Harvard- and Stanford- trained psychiatrist and the other with a law degree from Columbia, have more sweeping expectations. Idris has tested as highly gifted, and his father believes that Dalton will “open doors for him for the rest of his life” and allow him to compete “at the top level” with his peers. 

But as time passes swiftly, the boys’ parents begin to feel growing doubts. Stacey reports that her son has been brushing his gums till they bleed in an effort to make them pink like those of his white classmates. Brewster and Stephenson are stunned to be told that Idris is exhibiting behavior problems and has become “a hard-to-manage guy.” When Idris’s grades start to fall, his parents double down, creating a spreadsheet with every hour planned around schoolwork. The once exuberant boys seem increasingly disaffected. Confessing that the girls at school are ignoring him, Idris asks his father with utter sincerity: “I’d be better off if I was white . . . isn’t that  right?” His father says nothing, holding the shot in silence. At a meeting with other concerned parents of color it is clear that many of them wonder if the elite private school is helping or hurting their children.

American Promise

At the end of middle school, Seun, diagnosed with dyslexia, is asked to leave, and as the boys’ paths diverge, their friendship fades. Seun enrolls at a successful African-American public school where he thrives until the tragic death of his brother throws him into crisis. In high school at Dalton Idris’s isolation seems to ease with the entrance of many more African-American students, and his playful side reemerges as he navigates some very funny interactions with girls.

But academically and in sports Idris remains average. Along with moments of joy we witness grueling scenes in which his father expresses withering disapproval, and the pain on the boy’s face is hard to watch. When Idris fails to get into his top-choice colleges, his father comments that the boy is “in bed” mentally.

A pervasive undercurrent in American Promise is the cyclical trajectory of families: parents who have struggled to overcome great adversity find themselves baffled by their children’s seeming lack of drive. All four of the film’s central parents express this visceral frustration as they relate their own stories. Watching Obama’s first inauguration with his son, Joe, who made it into the most elite colleges, tells Idris of his own father’s humiliation over being called “Nigger Joe” and that he was illiterate until the age of 40, while Michèle escaped from a life of poverty compounded by her mother’s mental illness. Seun’s mother confides that she had no one to check her work or encourage her to go to college and that she wishes Seun had half the drive she did as a girl. But above all Joe emerges here as the most compelling and conflicted character—a father grappling with anger, impatience, and helplessness born of love.

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