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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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Seun Summers in 'American Promise'
Conrad Louis-Charles Seun Summers in 'American Promise'

JT: How did that affect you, to have to watch all these hours of footage of your family and make decisions about editing while you're still shooting the film?

JB: The process was so painful at first when we watched it that we would stay up for a few days unable to sleep. It would range from, "Did I really say that to my son?" to "Oh my god, that dress, I can't even get in it anymore." It's rough. From the physical to how you present yourself, to the way you speak. Our sentences would change after that. We stopped run-on sentences in our real life because they couldn't cut it. 

MS: But by May we had that 32 hours of footage. We wanted to make the Sundance deadline and we were really lucky to have three editors able to work at the same time. That's three years of work that we were able to condense into one. 

JB: We acknowledge that it's uncommon. The money came from a number of sources. We worked on this film for free for many years, but then we got some support from ITVS, Ford Foundation, and MacArthur Foundation came in at the end and that allowed us to do this. Some people say whoa, three editors. We've had films where we couldn't get one editor and we're cutting in the middle of the night while reading the manual of Final Cut Pro. We realize it's a privilege to work that way, but if you look at what it cost to make this film over a 13-year period, we did it with very little money. So we acknowledge and are grateful for the funding, but we know that the funding gap is significant for African American projects. 

JT: The film has done well to this point with very good reviews, the Sundance award, the theatrical premiere coming up, and now The Hollywood Reporter is listing it as a front runner for the Academy Award. 

JB: It's exciting to get the recognition that we are really filmmakers, that we really have some control over the craft, and that the issue is important around the country and will actually stimulate conversation. That's the only thing that it means for me. I remember someone telling us that the greatest fear is to be rejected, and one of our greatest hopes is to be accepted. So I'm sorry, I want to be accepted. I criticize America a lot in my work, but I want to be an American to be proud of. I want to be accepted. I want to be a part of solutions. 

JT: On the subject of what it means to be American, can you tell me about the title of the film? I understand it was originally titled The Dalton Experiment before it was called American Promise. To me, it brings to mind that issues affecting black boys are usually seen as black issues instead of American issues.

MS: Right, it's about understanding that our experiences are part of the larger American experience. It's also about interpreting what this promise means on different levels, whether it's the promise that we make to our son to protect and provide for him, support him, provide opportunities. It's the promise that this society makes to its families, and the promise that we hope the boys make to themselves. I just feel that the title has a symbolic strength that can be latched onto by anyone, and that's what we hope this story does. By titling our experience within that American context, we break the barrier of any kind of differences or stereotypes that other people will come with about who our boys are. 

JB: I was in Paris many years ago and I saw this sign that said "United States." And I saw a woman on the poster and it wasn't the "America" that I knew. So I would really like, when you say "America," that you see our sons and they're fully integrated into whatever that means, and seen without fear. That's what we've been promised, and I'd like for the promise to be kept. 

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American Promise will make its broadcast TV debut tonight, February 3, on PBS, as part of the network's Black History Month programming. For additional information on the film, visit its website HERE.

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


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