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'American Promise': New Documentary Prompts National Dialogue on Race

By Tracie Lewis

Idris Brewster (left) and Seun Summers, protagonists in Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson's American Promise. Photo: Michèle Stephenson / POV Docs

The film American Promise is more than a documentary; it is part of a bigger, ongoing movement about changing perceptions of—and behavior and values with respect to—young African-American males in our society.  The movement aims to address stereotypes, negative images, stigmas and intolerance based on race. The filmmakers at the helm of advancing the dialogue are Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson.

"We are part of something that's been brewing for years," Brewster maintains. "We didn't plan to be a part of a national movement, but we're excited to be part of it." The film features two middle-class, African-American families and their respective sons' educational journeys, triumphs and struggles along the way. The filmmakers follow their own son Idris and his best friend Oluwasen (Seun) Summers over 13 years, from kindergarten through high school graduation, beginning at the prestigious Dalton School in New York City.

In the film, Dalton School faculty members meet with prospective parents and explain the process of making kids feel great about themselves by teaching them to have a voice and by emphasizing the social and emotional side of children. The teachers discuss their goals for diversity among the student body, and also stress the high standards of academic achievement at Dalton.

Given the high expectations communicated by the Dalton staff, and the unfamiliar territory of the Dalton environment, Idris and Seun face challenges early on. Idris is disciplined by school administrators for what they determined as behavioral issues. Seun is told he cannot read a certain book because it is too difficult; he is later diagnosed with dyslexia. By the time the pair reach middle school, they're already viewed by the Dalton administration as problematic, different and out of their element. 

Making a film for over 13 years can be just as complex as the content. Brewster and Stephenson found inspiration from filmmakers who had tackled unique and powerful subject matters successfully. Michael Apted's Up series used the longitudinal approach to document subjects over an extended period of time in order to better understand both sociocultural issues and universal themes about life. Steve James' Hoop Dreams made the audience feel present, in the same room as the subjects, and Brewster and Stephenson found that style to be a powerful way to convey their message in American Promise. The work of the late filmmaker Marlon Riggs also inspired the filmmaking couple because of his ability to deal with painful subjects in an intricate manner.

Stephenson and Brewster both knew the story they wanted the film. "The storyline is really part of the thesis we had," Stephenson explains. "We really wanted to make sure that these boys are perceived for who they are and in all of their complexity. That had to be the driving force in how we constructed the film because it's about countering stereotypes and assumptions, and that pushed the narrative for us."

The filmmakers shot 800 hours of footage, then produced a 33-hour assembly. The final version of American Promise is 140 minutes. The most surprising aspect the editors helped to reveal was something very unexpected: humor. "We didn't think it was funny, having lived it," Brewster admits. 

Lending even more honesty and depth to the story, Stephenson, a lawyer, and Brewster, a psychiatrist, turned the cameras on themselves, thus assuming triple duties as filmmakers, parents and subjects. "It was very difficult for us seeing our son struggle—not academically, but socially—with his gradual loss of self-confidence," Brewster explains.  "At times, feeling that he was not equal in a number of ways, it was painful, and the pain could not be alleviated by telling him that he was smart or he was handsome or that he would get there. The process works in a different way; you have to support him over a long period of time." 

Stephenson adds, "For me, the difficult parts to shoot were the decisions where I felt like I was splitting my parent hat with my filmmaker hat with regards to exposing my son's story and going deeper into the issues where he would be out there. In some cases, I was really struggling at night with, ‘Am I doing the right thing as a parent by fulfilling this story that, as a filmmaker, I know is strong?'" Ultimately, they were confident that they were headed down the right road in telling this very personal story.

As Idris and Seun evolved in appearance and maturity, Brewster and Stephenson were able to access better equipment in their 13 years of production. "We started off with a PD 100 for a couple of years, then 24p, HD Sony film on tape, Sony hybrid tape CD card, and we ended the project with the Canon SLR 5D, 7 and T2i," the filmmakers recall.  The shooting style also changed. The cameraman would stay for longer periods, two or three days at a time. "What that did for us is develop a nice vérité shooting style," Brewster explains. "It became much easier to fund the film when people saw that footage, even though we found it hard to look at."

The filmmakers found it necessary to make another adjustment as the boys grew older: They decided to stop filming and interviewing Idris and Seun during their high school years. Instead, Brewster and Stephenson hired young male cinematographers not much older than the boys, a decision that resulted in more open and honest interviews.

In addition to the American Promise documentary, the filmmakers are utilizing transmedia storytelling, telling one story through multiple platforms as a means to empower parents. The team formed partnerships with organizations around the country to disseminate the American Promise campaign. "As personal as the film was, we are exploring something that is being experienced across the country by families of color, boys of color and the achievement gap that exists around these issues," Brewster explains. The goals of the campaign are to foster, inform, elevate and support young black men and provide long-term solutions.

Changing attitudes based on perceptions imposed by society is complicated. Hopes, dreams and expectations are marred by preconceived beliefs, stereotypes and implicit bias. The film briefly, yet skillfully, includes world events like Barack Obama's campaigns for president and for re-election, the shocking death of Trayvon Martin and the ongoing challenges that black males face. "We see the possibility of a black president, but in the same instance we see the tragedy of a Trayvon Martin," Stephenson notes. "We can't remove the fact that he was perceived a certain way and no matter what his education, there were consequences that came as a result of how he was perceived from the outside."

Following its East Coast premiere at the New York Film Festival in October, American Promise opens in theaters October 18 through Impact Partners.  Brewster and Stephenson have created ten campaign assets to assist parents, educators and youth. There is a free mobile app for parents, which is designed to give tips and support for social, emotional and academic growth. There is also a Professional Development Guide, a Digital Installation, a Youth Curriculum, a Youth Module, Promise Clubs, a Discussion Guide, and social media and a website.  American Promise airs on PBS' POV in early 2014, with a concurrent publication of a companion book, written by the filmmakers and published by Random House Bertelsmann.

Tracie Lewis is a writer and producer.