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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 Michele Stephenson
Jon Stuyvesant Idris Brewster and Michele Stephenson

JB: This film is about to explode, but it's not exploding as a film in a cinema. What people don't realize and what we didn't realize is that the issues that we're talking about have a tremendous valence with caretakers of black boys around the country. And we can feel it when we're talking to audiences in Portland, Oakland, Sacramento, Austin, Miami. It's not limited to Brooklyn or to New York or to private schools. We have 700 requests to screen. We can't even keep up with the demand. And so what we've done, because it's a long-term project, is spend time thinking about what we can offer parents. 

So we've written a book and it's coming out January 14. And when we wrote the chapters and we would go present to the publishing houses we would have a crowd of parents who worked in the publishing houses who would ask questions. So we realized that, and I told this to Idris, I said I'm not sure we can afford not to make the film. At this point it's really not about us. So if someone says you're a bad parent or you lost it, so be it.

JT: You've had that reaction?

MS: We've gotten that, oh yeah.

JB: But we're bringing some light to the issues that the boys face and validating what parents are saying. When a mother says to her son, "You've got to work harder because you're black," and he thinks, "Okay, what's the evidence of that?" You see evidence every day. You see stop and frisk, you see Trayvon Martin, you see kids making a decision at the age of four that black is worse or angrier. So we want to validate that from a middle-class perspective, because many people say that if you're middle-class you're immune.

JT: So many documentaries about education point to societal problems and institutional change. But this project seems to really focus on what individuals can do, what parents can do to help their kids.

MS: We are totally in tune with the need for structural and institutional change. There's no doubt that that has to occur. Greater investment in quality of the classroom, greater investment in validating teachers, things that happen on a policy level. But those things take years, they take consensus, they take a movement to support it and as parents and caregivers who are on the front lines with these boys we understand that we cannot wait for those changes. In the meantime there are things that we can do as individuals for the lives of the actual boys that we interact with.

JT: You must have learned a lot over these 13 years. What are some of the takeaways?

JB: We're not experts, but we can kick some ass if we have to. You can enter that classroom multiple times a semester and that will have a huge impact on the trajectory of your kid. One father told me, "I walk into my son's classroom on the first day and say 'Hello, my name is Mr. X. This is my son Little Mr. X and he is here to learn.'" He says that when a teacher hears that they know they have to deal with him and that's how he's evaluating them, by "Is my son learning?"

Another thing that we know is that these boys are punished at school, they're punished at home and they're punished in the neighborhood, and anything that you can do to positively reinforce them has huge impact. That's what we try to do and we've seen the results. There are concrete things that can happen to protect and to encourage these kids to develop educationally, morally, emotionally that we've become better aware of via the book, and we're going to share that.

MS: It's about sharing information with parents, but also with educators. Teachers have a positive role to play and it's really about embracing and discussing the difficult issues around perceptions that we bring to the classroom, and engaging parents in a different way where there can be incremental day-to-day changes in our interactions with each other. But the first step is really having that information in hand, and I think that can even push the envelope further towards institutional change. 

JB: The one thing we have to acknowledge is that we didn't create any of this. We fell into the film but there are other films that are dealing with similar issues. Some of these researchers like Joshua Aaronson and Claude Steele, they've been working on these issues for 25 years. Ron Ferguson, Alvin Poussaint, and it's gone to a fever pitch. The Campaign for Black Male Achievement, there are 1,400 organizations around the country all working together to make a dent in this. So we came at the right time on the backs of the researchers and the parents.

JT: Tell me about the 800 hours of footage that you shot. What was the process for cutting that down and shaping the film?

MS: First of all, that material runs the gamut in terms of format. We started with the PD100 and ended up our last two years shooting with the 5D and 7D. So the formatting evolved and came of age along with the kids and ourselves. But in terms of the editing process, once we got more substantial funding in high school we started editing in increments. Some stuff was actually cut so that we could raise more money, important scenes that we saw that we could use as a calling card. But it wasn't until two years before we finished the project that we hired an assistant editor to start cutting fat scenes for us. 

And then the last year we were lucky enough to have three editors on the team, Mary Manhardt as well as Aaron Casper and Andrew Siwoff. They basically used what was organized and laid out an initial cut of the film that was 32 hours. We said we wanted to use interviews as little as possible. We wanted to use all the possible scenes that could be made from the verite material because that was going to be the anchor for us, and then we would see where we would need narration and interviews. The task was one, to be no holds barred with regards to our characters. If we look bad, we look bad, just cut the scene anyway. We would make decisions on our character development later, but we wanted the strongest scenes possible. And so in May we sat down and watched those 32 hours, and then every couple of weeks from there we would check in and cut down as much as possible. 

JB: But we did have a theme when we started, that this film would be about parents wanting their sons to be perceived accurately. 

MS: We wanted to make sure their complexity shined through the material. That was part of the mandate and if it meant sacrificing us, sacrifice us. And that's what Mary was able to provide for us. She said, "Listen, we can cut this but we have to have some kind of guiding theme so that we know what we're trying to get at." It had to be encapsulated in a thesis statement, which we had written on a postcard on the wall as a guide for us as we went along. So we would check in with a timeline every couple of weeks, sometimes more, but with a shorter piece in mind. 

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


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