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Black Boys at Prep School: 'American Promise' Directors Discuss 13-Year Filmmaking Journey (Broadcast Debut Tonight On PBS)

Photo of Jai Tiggett By Jai Tiggett | Shadow and Act February 3, 2014 at 10:56AM

Black Boys at Prep School: 'American Promise' Directors Discuss 13-Year Filmmaking Journey (Broadcast Debut Tonight On PBS)
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Idris Brewster and Oluwaseun Summers in 'American Promise'
Michèle Stephenson Idris Brewster and Oluwaseun Summers in 'American Promise'

It will make its broadcast TV debut on TONIGHT, February 3, 10:00 p.m.-12:00 a.m. ET, on PBS, as part of the network's Black History Month programming. Here's our interview with the filmmakers ahead of tonight's premiere:

Sitting across from filmmakers Michele Stephenson and Joe Brewster is like being in the presence of the real-life Huxtables. They both laugh at this, but the similarities are undeniable. She worked as a lawyer (a human rights attorney), and he as a doctor (a Harvard-trained psychiatrist), before forming Rada Film Group in the 1990s. They both have high expectations for the family they're raising in their Brooklyn brownstone, and to watch Brewster give a thoughtful speech to his oldest son Idris is like watching a scene pulled straight from Cliff and Theo on The Cosby Show

Brewster and Stephenson spent 13 years documenting the educational journey of Idris and his friend Seun Summers as the boys attended The Dalton School, an elite K-12 private school on New York's Upper East Side. Their resulting feature documentary American Promise gives a candid and personal look at the challenges black boys and their families face in a society striving to define itself as "post-racial." The film has already earned acclaim on the film festival circuit, winning a Special Jury prize at Sundance and considerable Oscar buzz. 

The filmmakers made time to discuss what it was like devoting over a decade of their lives to the film, and what their project means for black male achievement. 

JAI TIGGETT: You started filming this project with students of both sexes and multiple races, but eventually it became a film about black boys - the disparity in school performance between them and other students, and the pressures and inherent bias they face. Tell me about how that transition happened.

MICHELE STEPHENSON: It was really a blessing in disguise, because we had these three other girls involved, one African American girl who dropped out of the project quite early, one Latina and one White American girl who both eventually dropped out before we even hit middle school. And that really forced us to delve more deeply into the experiences of the two remaining families who happened to have African American boys. But it also happened at a key moment in their educational journey as we were hitting middle school, which is when the issues started to come up. We had two out of the three black boys in the whole grade having these issues, with a third black boy having similar issues. And then we started to talk to other families, and this was all happening as we were shooting and hadn't yet framed our story. But also, seeing older African American boys being asked to leave [the school] had an impact on us and our sense of security, to have these boys who Idris connected with, who we find are wonderful but who are being asked to go, and then these other families not being willing to share because of their own pain. 

JOE BREWSTER: When those three people dropped out it wasn't coincidental. It's part of the same process. Why did all girls drop out? Why the girls who were predominantly Caucasian? And so yes, we see race everywhere, but race is not a bad thing. Just because we talk about it doesn't mean we don't celebrate it or we're worried. We're just aware. 

MS: So then, we started to look at the issue more in depth. We had a researcher working with us, Lauren Pabst, and we started to do more proposals for funding. As we were doing the research and looking at advisors to help we understood that there was this whole phenomenon going on which we were part of, and that it cut across class; that there were issues of perception, implicit bias, stereotype threat, about how these boys felt about performance. We reached out to Joe's mentor Dr. Alvin Poussaint, a psychiatrist at Harvard, and Joe actually traveled with some footage up there to get his own commentary on what was going on. And that's when we realized that what we were experiencing is bigger than us and that we were on to something, which was documenting these experiences in the moment. They weren't going to be just talking heads. This could really provide greater information and connection to a wider audience.

JT: I've heard that you were inspired by Michael Apted's Up series. But how difficult a decision was it for you to put yourselves on camera as well?

JB: We started out as filmmakers first. We were moved by Up, but there were other people who moved us just as much. 

MS: Marlon Riggs' Black is... Black Ain't.

JB: We were looking for a way to make multiple projects simultaneously, so this was a check-in project. And although we love Up, it doesn't go deep emotionally. So ultimately by moving away from Up and moving towards someone like Marlon or even Hoop Dreams, where you have a deeper emotional dive into characters, we were able to make something that I think is a little more compelling than it would have been if we had just interviewed people every year or six months.

MS: We definitely wanted to use the Up framework as a kind of scaffolding. We were interested in exploring the fly on the wall and shooting things as they happened, but we realized that we couldn't rely just on the two boys for the dramatic, compelling material and to be able to articulate certain things because of their age. That's when we realized we needed to be more intensely involved, and the parents of Oluwaseun needed to be more intensely involved as well. So the need that we felt as filmmakers to push the story forward compelled us to turn the camera on ourselves.

JT: Tell me about introducing your son Idris to the project. At such a young age, did he accept the cameras filming him as an everyday thing? 

MS: We actually cut our first film when he was eight months old and he would be crawling next to the edit bay. That's back when we were cutting and actually splicing 35mm film, and he would be playing with the filmstrips. So he's had film around him all his life and it's kind of second nature for him. 

JB: I would say that we as parents exercised our privilege to make the decision for him, and we did it with some thought as to how it would impact his life. We are believers in the power of intimacy, and by that I mean sharing complicated information and feelings. I'm a therapist. It's what I do for living, and this film is no different. Audiences find it shocking sometimes, but when we develop that ability to be more complex in relation to affect and emotion and feelings, we really grow as a people and nation. 

We know that one of the reasons the film generates a lot of controversy is because of the level of sharing of pain. And sometimes that pain is so shocking that they lose sight of the fact that they just laughed for 30 minutes. But if you go back to Marlon Riggs, that's what he did. He was on his deathbed making a film and sharing feelings about being black and human. And so that's an amazing piece of work where there's a lot of complexity. You can't get it by shielding everyone around you. But the other issue is that when we are on stage with our son [at screenings], he's doing the same thing now. He's sharing complicated feelings. He's a critical thinker but it's not just critical thinking; it's critically emotional.

This article is related to: American Promise, Joe Brewster, Michèle Stephenson, TV News


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