'American Promise'

Race, Class, and Education

by Isaiah Wooden

3 February 2014


There are two dynamic, exceedingly bright boys from Brooklyn at the center of Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson’s American Promise. The documentary chronicles the lives of Brewster and Stephenson’s son, Idris, and his best friend, Seun. Hoping to avail them of the many opportunities and privileges that an expensive, private school education often affords—and wanting, too, to equip them with skills to counter a world that frequently elides black maleness with criminality—Idris and Seun’s parents enroll them in Manhattan’s tony Dalton School for kindergarten.

Premiering on PBS’ documentary series, POV, on 3 February 2, and streaming 4 February through 5 March, the film, shot over nearly 13 years, reveals problems in the school’s systems, strains on the boys’ friendship, and the parents’ own anxieties, as they wonder aloud about whether certain racial and class stereotypes have influenced Dalton administrators’ determination that the boys be tested for learning disabilities. In documenting the personal and educational experiences of Idris and Seun, Brewster and Stephenson offer a timely and essential rejoinder to efforts aimed at dismissing the lives of black youth, especially black boys, as fungible and expendable.

See PopMatters’ review.


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