courtesy of POV:
American Promise is an intimate and provocative account, recorded over 12 years, of the experiences of two middle-class African-American boys who entered a very prestigious–and historically white–private school on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. The Dalton School had made a commitment to recruit students of color, and five-year-old best friends Idris Brewster and Oluwaseun (Seun) Summers of Brooklyn were two of the gifted children who were admitted. The boys were placed in a demanding environment that provided new opportunities and challenges, if little reflection of their cultural identities.
Idris’ parents, Joe, a Harvard- and Stanford-trained psychiatrist, and Michèle, a Columbia Law School graduate and filmmaker, decided to film the boys’ progress starting in 1999. They and members of the large Summers family soon found themselves struggling not only with kids’ typical growing pains and the kinds of racial issues one might expect, but also with surprising class, gender and generational gaps. American Promise, which traces the boys’ journey from kindergarten through high school graduation, finds the greatest challenge for the families–and perhaps the country–is to close the black male educational achievement gap, which has been called “the civil rights crusade of the 21st century.”
The Dalton School, which provides classes from kindergarten through high school, is a launching pad for success, but also a high-pressure learning environment for all its students. Joe and Michèle, along with Seun’s parents, Tony, a systems engineer for CBS, and Stacey, a nursing care manager for elder health, have worked hard to build their careers despite early disadvantages and are united in their drive to have their sons succeed at school and in life. But there are differences in outlook. Michèle, with Latino-Haitian roots, has some hesitation about sending Idris to private school, where she is afraid he will lose touch with his heritage, while Stacey, who hails from Trinidad, wants Seun to learn something she admits she hasn’t–how to be comfortable around white people. While both fathers have high expectations for their sons, Joe is particularly demanding, while Tony tends to be more forgiving of Seun’s ups and downs.
Idris and Seun are bright, playful boys. Idris is outgoing, while Seun is a bit shy. At school, the boys begin to see the differences between themselves and their classmates. The very young Seun is found trying to brush the color out of his gums because, as he explains, some people say that “black is ugly.” Idris, an enthusiastic basketball player at school and in the neighborhood, finds that the way he is comfortable speaking at home and in school is mocked by other black kids as “talking white.” As puberty looms, Idris feels a distinct disadvantage when he is turned down for dates and suspects that race must be the reason. He asks his parents an innocent, heartbreaking question: “Isn’t it better if I were white?” Along with getting good (and not so good) grades, both boys begin to have emotional and academic problems that confound parents and teachers alike.
Seun’s father, Tony, sheds a humorous light on the situation when he recalls being the only black kid in an all-white class. When the class learned the story of Harriet Tubman, the students turned around and looked at him in unison. At a meeting, the African-American parents of Dalton sixth graders find that their boys are being tracked into special tutoring programs, which may, inadvertently, reinforce some of the root causes of the black male achievement gap.
It soon becomes clear that the situation with Idris, Seun and the others is not as straightforward as simply reflecting the disparities between blacks and whites in America. African-American girls at Dalton and in similar educational settings regularly outperform their male peers, a gender disparity that baffles parents and teachers. Certainly the boys spend a lot of energy on sports, upon which their parents place great emphasis. Idris, nursing dreams of a basketball career–improbable, given his modest height–experiences wins and losses on the school court. Seun is diagnosed with dyslexia and Idris with ADHD, conditions that are widespread among American children and adolescents of all backgrounds.
Both boys struggle with the weight of parental and school expectations, as any kid would, though for Idris and Seun, the weight might be even heavier. American Promise is especially revelatory in showing how the fight to succeed hits home in these two black families. The parents are often frustrated by what they see as their sons’ relative lack of drive, compared to their own experiences.
The boys’ paths then diverge. Upon graduating middle school, Seun leaves Dalton to attend the mostly black Benjamin Banneker Academy, a public high school in Brooklyn, where he thrives, traveling to West Africa with his school’s Africa Tours Club and setting his sights on a career in graphic design (to his parents’ consternation). Idris stays at Dalton through high school, but is disappointed when he doesn’t get into Stanford, his dad’s alma mater. Now dating a girl he adores, he is accepted into Occidental College in California and exuberantly comes to see that what seemed a setback is just another challenge to overcome. Even Joe, the Stanford and Harvard graduate who admits that he has at times been too hard on Idris, accepts that there are roads to success that don’t run straight through the Ivy League. Seun gets into the State University of New York, Fredonia, where he will study graphic arts, and his parents, too, realize there are many paths to success and happiness.
The ins and outs of familial relationships, as parents push for success and boys struggle to find their own identities, plus the challenges and tragedies that life brings, such as Stacey’s colon cancer and the accidental death of Seun’s beloved younger brother, form much of the drama of American Promise. At stake, beyond the challenges of being white or black in America, is the meaning of success in our country. “All American families want to give their children the opportunity to succeed. But the truth is, opportunity is just the first step, particularly for families raising black boys,” says co-director and co-producer Michèle Stephenson. “We hope American Promise shines a light on these issues.”
“Our goal is to empower boys, their parents and educators to pursue educational opportunities, especially to help close the black male achievement gap,” adds her husband and filmmaking partner, Joe Brewster.
courtesy of POV:
POV: For those who haven’t seen the film, can you give us a description of the story and how you got started?
Michèle Stephenson: American Promise is a coming of age story about two young African American boys who’s lives we chronicle from kindergarten through high school graduation. It’s a coming of age story where we see them grow and go through different struggles having to do with education, family, and parenting. The interesting twist about this film is that the filmmakers are also the parents and that’s us, so there’s a particular lens on the experience that we chronicle. It sheds light on some of the particularities and issues that African American boys face specifically around education.
POV: Give us an overview of who the main characters of the film are.
Joe Brewster: When we began the process of making American Promise we decided to invite as many families as possible in our son’s kindergarten class at The Dalton School, a rigorous independent school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. We had five families agree to participate. Over the next few years three dropped out so we were left with our family and our son’s friend in nursery school’s family, the Summers.
Stephenson: I think what was part of the impetus for the film had to do with some of the reasons why we actually entered into this school. We were public school educated parents, but we had been to some of the top Ivy League institutions in our graduate and undergraduate studies and realized, being first generation graduates of a university, what kind of opportunity an education from a rigorous private school could provide because they were our colleagues. When we searched for a place in New York City and came upon the Dalton School, we realized it was an opportunity we couldn’t say no to for our son because of what we thought would be the best education possible. What happened at that time was, upon entering that environment, the school was invested in diversifying its student body and we were part of that experiment. For us, the natural response as filmmakers and documentarians coming into that process was to turn on the camera.
POV: So tell us about the Dalton School as it is a very particular place. Can you describe the environment the kids are in and how it differs from regular public schools?
Stephenson: The Dalton School and others like it that are part of this college preparatory, private school system around the country, but mostly concentrated in urban areas, are really where the elite are educated. It’s about power and being prepared to be a critical thinker in order to have access to that power. They are where our leaders are educated. We came to that, informed in that specific way and looking to guarantee some of the upward mobility that we had started for our family. Dalton is part of that. Some institutions shy away from it but I think that school in particular decided it was their responsibility, as an institution that shapes leaders, to create a school environment reflective of the global society that those students would be entering.
POV: Was it always your intention to chronicle the subjects entire education or was that something that evolved as you went along?
Brewster: Many things evolved over the 14 years of making American Promise but our initial intention was to shoot from kindergarten to graduation.
Stephenson: What it would end up as we weren’t sure but we knew that we had faith in the longitudinal approach and what that could provide as story and drama.
POV: In terms of working with an institution like Dalton, how did you get access to the school and make them comfortable in revealing some of the challenges they face?
Brewster: I think if we had gone into the school and explained the project as it ultimately became, we would have had great difficulty getting this project started. What happened is we came in; we caught them off-guard and we were parents. They were excited about this diversity initiative; we were excited; we had a little bitty camera and began the process all a little naive. The stakes were elevated over the next two or three years and then the serious questions began.
Stephenson: We had a relationship with the head of the middle school who really asking questions about the retention rate of African American boys in middle school for these institutions and was very open about how to resolve this. That particular person was really an advocate for us in continuing the story in spite of the dangers and also understanding that we were invested in telling a complicated story and not a “gotcha,” journalistic approach.
POV: You both refer to issues that African American families, particularly African American young boys face in these situations. What are some of those issues and how do you see them manifest themselves in the film?
Brewster: We point often to something called implicit bias. And that is an unconscious racism. These are feelings, projections, perceptions that you have about these boys that are based on 300 years of perceptions, many of them inaccurate. When we are faced with those perceptions there’s a great deal of anxiety that fills the room. For example, that science may be difficult for them or the academic challenge of an independent school may be over our head. And so there’s a sense of anxiety and shame and it makes it hard to perform. We realized over time that we had to face that directly.
Stephenson: Once these boys hit middle school, there are issues around perception that they’re no longer little boys and sometimes seen as a threat. The suspension happens more frequently. Teachers will you know call us for every small incident that happens, which creates greater anxiety from our perspective as well in terms of how they are being perceived and then trying to figure out if it or real or not; is it based on perception or not? Whole issues that come up in interactions with the institution, the teachers and, in some cases, with other families and other students. So there’s that particular interaction within the school. In light of the fact that you know you picked this school to kind of save your child from perceptions that are outside, you want it to be a safe space, but then you realize that the same perceptions are perpetuated inside. You realize that there’s work that has to be done because in many cases these teachers have not really had much interaction with African American boys.
Brewster: So our son struggled in a sense in acclimating culturally to that Dalton environment but to our chagrin he also struggled in the Brooklyn environment. Here is a boy who has to acclimate in two distinct cultural environments. For us, it’s like learning two or three languages. What we like to say is that, over time, he’s able to master these two cultural environments and that we are hoping that makes him a better man and better able to negotiate his future here.
POV: You have 800 hours of footage. How do you take that volume of material and then shape it into a narrative?
Brewster: It was a little overwhelming so we brought in three great verité editors. We made a decision that we would cut every single piece of footage into verité scenes. We basically gave our editors a couple of instructions, that we wanted this to be a film which we as parents wanted our sons to be perceived for who they really were. We also suggested that they shouldn’t protect us in doing that. I don’t know about the first, but the latter they kept to.
POV: How did it feel for you to make the decision to integrate yourselves into the story more? Also, stepping back now, to see yourselves become characters, essentially.
Brewster: Well it’s particularly painful for me as I wear multiple hats, but my first hat is father. My first job is to make sure my son grows up, that he’s emotionally healthy and that he has some level of academic skills. I think I accomplished that but I’m unable to show you that completely in the film. It’s painful as filmmakers when a critic who has no idea of what went on is chastising you for your child-rearing capabilities. About six or seven years into the project, when I became aware of the numbers affecting African American boys and families, we spoke to about a 150 families around the country in making the film and writing the book. At that point I thought the mission was important. We have shown this film to a number of families and, in tears, they tell us how important this is for validating their experience. Was it worth the pain, the shame and the criticism? I think, at this point, it is a resounding yes. Ask us next week (laughs).
POV: You talk about the numbers around specific issues facing African American young boys. Give us some examples of the things you discovered along the way.
Brewster: That they are are the most criticized and punished subgroup in American society and that does not begin at 16, it begins at 4. We met parents who did not understand, given the resources their child had, why they struggled as much as they did. Even when you look at, and this is what is most shocking, upper middle class parents that gap seems to increase as they go up in income.
Stephenson: Essentially, how well students do is how well we do as a nation. The two are interlinked and intertwined. If we really want to compete at a level that makes sense to maintain, not only our status but our community and our values in this country, we have to take care of all of our children.
Brewster: We are certainly excited about the possibility of change. We know how to educate these boys. We know how to reduce the gap. We have to expect more and hug more. That is our message.
POV: Does the gap appear equally in the public school system vs. the independent school system or do you see differences in how those two systems function?
Brewster: It is everywhere. What we like to say is that many people want to look at this film and ask what the independent schools are doing but when they leave the the independent schools they are going to have to face similar perceptions; a lack of expectations in the criminal justice system, the healthcare system, the banking system. Becoming aware of the issues in this one environment is just a tool to look at American society as a whole.
Stephenson: I think what this film helps shed light on is, when you take away the issue of resources there are things that still perpetuate the gap; there are things that still perpetuate the fact that performances are not the same. The thing that still exists is the unconscious racism. It is the implicit bias that these students face and have to deal with. This permeates whatever the socio-economic class that the communities comes from.
POV: In terms of talking to white families or the side that carries that implicit bias with it, are you having those dialogues too?
Brewster: Let me go back and explain that implicit bias impacts all Americans. The stereotypes that I may be less likely to accept because I am African American I am still impacted by them, although may be in other ways. For example, not asking my son to study as much because I may think it is difficult. It is important that everyone get involved in this discussion because it is not possible to make the big changes without everyone owning some part of the problem.
Stephenson: In telling the story the way it is told the film is an attempt at piercing through stereotypes and assumptions that maybe a majority of audiences have about what a black middle class family is or what these boys are like. It plays that initial role in challenging assumptions and biases that exist. I like to think that is what filmmaking is about. That is why we do what we do. I think Ralph Ellison says “every story is a minority story”. Every particular story is particular, whether it is African American or relating to someone who lives by the Louisiana Bayou, it is about how we as filmmakers use that particularity to tell a story that has a resonance. That is our task and i think that is the first step in attacking these implicit biases. That is why storytelling is so powerful. By seeing these boys come of age, the impact of that longitudinal growth beats any kind of racial assumptions anyone could have. You no longer see them as black but as human beings and boys who are fully grown and complex in their own way. We like to think that when people leave the theater will think twice when they walk down the street and see boys who look like Idris and Seun.
Brewster: Some people will see race; some people will se class but everyone will see boys growing up over time who are African American, trustworthy, efficient and who are like you. That is the real accomplishment.