American Promise is a very personal documentary 12 years in the making. Filmmakers Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson turned the camera on themselves and began filming the experiences of their 5-year-old son Idris and his best friend Seun as they started kindergarten in 1999. The boys enrolled at the prestigious Dalton School on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, just as the private institution boldly strengthened its commitment to cultivating a diverse student body.
Over the 12 years, we see the boys and their families navigate learning differences that later become diagnoses, struggle with stereotypes and identity, and ultimately take divergent paths on their road to graduation. We also see a rare and vivid portrait of middle-class African American families as the filmmaker parents wrestle with doubts and angst over their son's educational journey and both families grapple with how best to support their sons and interact with teachers and administrators.
All of this is set against the backdrop of a persistent educational achievement gap that dramatically affects African American boys at all socioeconomic levels across the country. The film puts a face to the unique social and emotional needs of these boys and calls into question commonly held assumptions about access, resources, and what really influences academic performance.
Because — even with prominent role models like President Obama — many people still clutch their bags tighter when they see a black man approaching. These mixed messages and negative perceptions not only shape how African American boys see themselves, but also how their parents, teachers, and others see their potential.
Through the story of these two boys, American Promise illustrates how all of us play a part in the challenges black boys face creating a healthy self-identity — and why acknowledging this dynamic is an important step toward addressing achievement and their opportunities for success.
- Michèle StephensonProducer/Director
- Joe BrewsterProducer/Director