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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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The Stephenson-Brewster family
Orrie King The Stephenson-Brewster family

JT: Idris is very open and vulnerable in the film. One thing we've experienced with the documentary series I produce, Little Brother, is that audiences always seem surprised to see young black males showing that level of vulnerability on screen.

JB: It's profound. You want to make a film that goes to a world that people don't know. But you realize they don't know articulate black boys who are vulnerable. As a society we're comfortable seeing African-Americans struggling in a working class environment, we're comfortable with all of the other associated preconceptions.

JT: Even with the two of you, I say that you're like the Huxtables, but a lot of people don't believe in that image of a middle class black family having these types of experiences. Prep school, competition, social mobility. They see it as fiction. Was that a consideration going into this project, to affect perceptions of black middle class life?

JB: No, because you tend to try to hide that. We haven't really gotten over the fact that we're first-generation. We're the first in our family to go to college, and so we are struggling with some of the same issues that our son struggles with in terms of belonging, being of multiple classes, multiple cultures. He calls it a twoness. And that's what you'll find often in black middle class families. We're not coming from 20 generations of wealth, we're coming from one generation back. And so we didn't push it out there because initially we didn't understand how powerful that was. But also from the point of view that we didn't think the film was about us until we were knee-deep in it. 

You know, African-Americans of all sorts of economic classes watch more television than anybody else, and the theory as explained by a few is that it's one of our ways of figuring out what's going on around us. It's an acclimation into this vantage point, into this larger world, but it's not our world. It's not an accurate depiction. So we understand that we are contributing to the building of a more complex gaze into the African-American community.

MS: We've gotten some pushback from certain funders or even partners seeing clips of the film and saying, "How is this going to be relevant to the constituency that I'm working with, which is working poor?" Our response has been, again, we watch white television and don't ask how is that relevant. We feel that the film touches upon issues that cut across class, and by telling a good story you create connection that goes beyond whatever their particular socioeconomic status or life experience is. Hopefully that can propel the conversation on what can communities do with their work, or even just as parents. There are things that are universal about parenting that don't have anything to do with class. But we got pushback and it's interesting, because that question isn't asked of white filmmakers going to the inner-city and depicting certain stories; somehow that's safer or more relevant. How is it more relevant? And why does it have to be mutually exclusive? Why do all of our stories have to come from a certain perspective to be valid?

I've had people come up to me, young men, some of whom are mentees or part of the Big Brothers Big Sisters program and say, "I feel like you're my mom." They see the love, they see the nurturing, they see the expectations that are made and they see themselves through Idris and Seun and understand that a lot of this is about expressing and the need to be loved and supported.

JT: You've been making the movie for the majority of Seun and Idris' lives. Has it been much of an adjustment for them, or you, now that filming is completed?

MS: Not really. When you look at what we've shot, it hasn't been that impactful in terms of changing their lives. It speaks to the power of the film that people, after seeing it, have the impression that we had the cameras on 24/7. People think, "How could you be shooting your child 24/7 and be there, present, all the time?" But in reality we have 800 hours of footage over 13 years. When you look at the families, that comes out to about one hour per month. When you look at that in comparison to everything else that was left out or other aspects of our lives, I think it puts things in perspective that the camera was much less invasive than people have the impression of because of how we constructed the story.

JB: Now, it's really the same amount of time spent on the project. For example, this summer Idris went to a leadership conference in Chicago. He spoke in front of Teach for America in Los Angeles. He'll be at the University of Iowa talking to students there.

JT: So he's now a sort of ambassador for the film across the country.

JB: I don't think he's championing the film as much as he's championing the issue.

MS: And his experience. He facilitated one workshop with youth in Kentucky with excerpts from the film. We've developed a whole guide that's a safe space for just youth to talk to each other and he and Seun facilitated the conversation. I think that they'll continue to do that so long as it fits within their schedule, and they've embraced that.

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


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