In 2000, Joe Brewster and Michele Stephenson had a simple idea: document the education of their son Idris on film. They were planning to enter him into New York City’s prestigious Dalton School, and Dalton was planning to dedicate itself anew to creating a more diverse learning environment (Idris is black, and Dalton had an overwhelmingly white student body). They selected several other students on the same path, and intended to document them all, but only one other stayed attached to the project all the way through to his high school graduation: Idris’ friend Seun “Shay” Summers (who is also black). The finished movie that tells their story is American Promise, and it demands to be seen.
There are two things one might expect a story such as this: adorable precociousness when the boys are young, and tear-jerking parent/child moments when they are older. American Promise delivers on both counts, because both boys are very natural on-screen. Neither of them seems to be performing for the camera, which is a common danger of documentaries about children and teenagers. It also helps that Brewster and Stephenson acknowledge heavy influence on the style from Michael Apted’s Up series (7 Up, 14 Up, 21 Up, etc.) of documentaries, which take an even-handed look at aging and the process of maturation.
And yet, these directors cannot keep themselves separate or unbiased from their subjects – one is their son – so the influence of the camera and the editor is felt in a way that Apted might not approve of. The boys acknowledge the existence of the camera on a couple of occasions (including an attempt to charm some girls on the subway), but any moments of rebellion against the project or anger toward the camera are edited out, which seems more unrealistic as they move later into their teenage years. The scene where Idris struggles to hail a cab after a graduation party is difficult to interpret: is it confirmation of the well-known struggles black men have hailing taxis in America’s major cities, or were the taxi drivers intimidated by the camera crew following these young men around?
The actual documentation of the boys’ education manages to ask a multitude of interesting questions. When Idris and Seun struggle at Dalton, is it because they’re learning-disabled, or because the school is too eager to label them as such because of their race? Is it because their parents are pushing them too hard, or because of the normal distractions involved with being young? Any of these explanations may be true, and many more besides. The film takes no position in the education arena of the culture wars, save for Hillary Clinton’s assertion that it takes a village to raise a child; many of the various members of Idris’ and Seun’s village are presented in the film, and the influence of more, such as Idris’ basketball coach, is felt without their appearing on screen.
As important as education is to American Promise, its most powerful moments happen away from the classroom or from their studies in general. The scene where Joe tells Idris about what Barack Obama’s election means to him is genuinely moving, as are all scenes related to a number of personal tragedies that Seun suffers during his senior year. The film’s final scene is a lyrical metaphor of the sort that the film’s directors had not displayed up until that point; American Promise should not be taken as a completely unbiased experience, but for a story of the growth and change of two families, scenes like that one carry uncommon power.
The New York Film Festival celebrates 51 years and runs from September 27 to October 13, 2013. For a complete schedule of films, screening times, and ticket information, please see the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s official site.