Recent winner of the US Documentary Special Jury Award at Sundance, American Promise is a deeply personal examination of the American education system, focusing specifically on how it affects young black boys. Directors Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson embarked upon a twelve year journey in making the film, chronicling the arduous academic and emotional progress of their son, Idris, and his friend Seun.
From ages six to eighteen, we watch Idris and Seun navigate the competitive New York private school world that their middle-class families believe to be the only hope of them succeeding. Both families enroll their sons at the Dalton School, an upper crust preparatory institution known for producing powerful politicians, journalists, businessmen, and entertainers. For the rest of the film, Brewster and Stephenson fix an unflinching eye on the boys as they struggle with high expectations despite severe learning disabilities, as well as the unpleasant realities of being the lone black face in a sea of white students.
The most intriguing dimension of the film is indeed the social and racial issues it brings up. Idris is teased for “talking white,” by other black children on the playground, and proves an oddity to the white kids he goes to school with, his very name a source of novel curiosity and ridicule. Seun, who gradually grows into a well-built, moody young man before our eyes, grapples with people, including his instructors, being “afraid” of him because of the way he looks.
While it has the strong potential to become a preachy “message” film, American Promise does not necessarily push an agenda. Its filmmakers have been very vocal about their commitment to the cause of helping young black boys succeed (not much is said of black girls, unfortunately), but that cause is presented with a generally unbiased, panoramic view of a complex issue. We’re allowed to see both the good and both sides of their experiment - often times the two young subjects are shed in not the best light, as are their families, who in several instances come off as more obsessive and demanding than supportive.
Premiering later this year on PBS, American Promise does not purport to answer any of the countless questions about class, race, and gender politics that it raises, but it does hold the perhaps more significant potential to spark a wider discussion about an issue that has plagued the black community in America for a long time.
Zeba Blay is a Ghanaian-born film and culture writer based in New York. She is a contributor to Huffington Post, Africa Style Daily, and Slant Magazine. She co-hosts the weekly podcast Two Brown Girls, and runs a personal movie blog, Film Memory. Follow her on Twitter @zblay.