[31 October 2013]
Editor’s note: American Promise is opening in select theaters and will premiere on PBS on in February 2014.
There are two dynamic, exceedingly bright boys from Brooklyn at the center of Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson’s American Promise. Spanning nearly 13 years, this longitudinal 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.
Idris and Seun enter Dalton at a moment when the mostly white school has committed, at least rhetorically, to making its student body reflect the diversity of New York City. As American Promise traces the boys’ struggles with their new environment, it also exposes some of the challenges Dalton faces in realizing its commitment, including the profound myopia of some of the school’s seemingly well-meaning teachers and administrators.
During their time in what’s called the “first program”, Idris and Seun mostly thrive, approaching their education with youthful optimism and verve. When prompted to supply their thoughts on the school, the two best friends tend to gush about how much they love it. There are signs early on, however, that being black students here is affecting the boys’ sense of self. A wildly energetic and creative child, Seun takes to scrubbing his brown gums until they bleed so they will appear pink like those of his classmates. He also begins to question his own academic and intellectual capabilities.
It’s not long before both sets of parents wonder aloud about whether certain racial and class stereotypes have influenced school administrators’ determination that the boys be tested for learning disabilities. Joe, a psychiatrist with degrees from Stanford and Harvard who grew up poor in South Central Los Angeles, rebuffs suggestions that Idris might suffer from ADHD. A Dalton administrator’s earnest but pseudo-psychological assessment that there is an inherent “cultural disconnect between independent schools and African American boys” seems to confirm Joe’s worry that the school can’t evaluate his son’s potential without prejudice.
As they follow Idris and Seun’s educational trajectories, Brewster and Stephenson don’t shy away from capturing some of their own anxieties as parents. For Joe, Dalton initially symbolizes limitless possibilities. And so he’s determined to resist anything he interprets as an attempt to deprive Idris of a Dalton education, sometimes including Idris himself.
Joe’s criticism of his son can be relentless. When Idris’ basketball team loses a game, Joe is quick to tell the crying boy that the result is a consequence of the team’s terrible play and Idris’ personal laziness. Michèle is just as demanding as her husband. In fact, she partners with Joe to develop an intensely rigid schoolwork schedule and ensures that Idris adheres to it after her son’s grades start to slip during middle school.
Still, between their often ill-timed critiques and tantrums, what remains evident throughout American Promise is that both filmmaker-parents have high expectations for Idris precisely because they love him so deeply. Quotidian moments threaded throughout the film—car rides to school, easy conversations around the dinner table, and hugs before bedtime—reflect this idea repeatedly.
Though Seun’s parents, Stacey and Tony, have equally high expectations for him, they remain more ambivalent about Dalton’s middle school and begin searching for a new high school. “I hate school. It’s bad. It’s hard,” Seun remarks one afternoon while maneuvering the New York streets. Despite the difficulties he experiences keeping up with his school workload—difficulties exacerbated by dyslexia and attention deficit problems—Seun maintains hope that he will get to share the high school experience with his many Dalton friends.
Dalton does not offer him a spot in the high school class. Thus, eighth grade graduation becomes the scene of many tearful goodbyes, including a heartbreaking one between the two best friends. Brewster and Stephenson let the shot of the two boys in an emotional embrace at the ceremony linger. In so doing, they document their own recognition that the boy’s friendship will soon undergo significant transitions.
Tested by time, geography, and diverging interests, the bonds of friendship do inevitably loosen for Idris and Seun. Idris continues at Dalton for high school, where he plays varsity basketball, interrogates the meanings of passages from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and excitedly ponders attending his father’s alma mater, Stanford while battling typical teenage angst. Seun, on the other hand, goes on to attend what might be described as “the anti-Dalton,” Benjamin Banneker Academy, a public high school in Brooklyn that emphasizes Afrocentric principles, where he becomes active in the African Tours Club and travels with classmates to West Africa.
The revelation towards the end of American Promise that Seun has been accepted to several colleges marks one of the film’s most stirring scenes. Though he mostly thrives at Banneker, the vagaries of life dampen Seun’s enthusiasm for school and, for a spell, it’s unclear if he will graduate high school, let alone attend college. The film underlines his family’s sense of elation when they visit the campus of SUNY-Fredonia, capturing Stacey’s pride at her son’s acceptance there and her relief that he once again is imagining life in the future tense. The scene contrasts starkly with another one in which Idris and Michèle, after telling Joe about several rejection letters from colleges, are forced to listen to Joe berate his already bruised son for what feels like an eternity.
Put together, both moments raise interesting questions about the psychic toll of our collective investments in elite education as an enterprise. Further, that the boys take different paths but arrive at similar destinations provokes additional questions for currents debates about urban education reform, public education, and school privatization.
Their stories set against the backdrop of Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign and election, Idris and Seun display extraordinary resilience. Indeed, like Arthur Agee, Jr. and William Gates before them, the subjects of Hoop Dreams, a film that American Promise recalls repeatedly, the pair also displays keen abilities to tackle head on the myriad challenges facing black youth coming of age in today’s America. 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.