When married couple Joe Brewster and Michelle Stephenson decided to turn a video camera on their kindergarten son to chronicle his journey through New York’s prestigious Dalton School, it didn’t take them long to realize they had something on their hands rarely seen in American media and popular culture: a real-world depiction of middle-class African American life.
Brewster, a psychologist, and Stephenson, an attorney, kept the camera running over the course of 12 years, recording moments painful and sublime, joyful and sorrowful, as their son Idris and his best friend Seun grew up on camera from 5-year-olds to high school graduates. The couple, who also dabbled in filmmaking, sifted through 800 hours of footage to create a groundbreaking documentary called “American Promise” that’s been racking up awards and rave reviews ever since it debuted earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival, where it won the special jury prize.
The film opens today in New York, next Friday in Los Angeles, Nov. 8 in Atlanta, and throughout the fall in other cities around the country.
The filmmakers also collaborated with writer Hilary Beard on an accompanying book, Promises Kept: How to Help Black Boys Succeed in School and in Life—Lessons Learned from the 12-Year American Promise Project, that offers many surprising and important findings about the raising of black boys, as discovered by Brewster and Stephenson during their odyssey at Dalton and in consultation with a slew of experts. I spoke at length with Brewster and Stephenson earlier this year while I was working on a series on black boys that I wrote for Ebony magazine.
“We realized as filmmakers that we had something in our hands that had never been discussed, certainly not in documentary form, because black middle-class families in documentaries are few and far between,” Stephenson said. “It’s often the most marginalized groups whose stories are told, often by white filmmakers. They might be complex characters, but they feed into stories that continue to perpetuate the very things we are trying to break out, to break open. We realized we had something different in our hands, about black middle-class families and the struggles we face regarding keeping our sons whole. And the choices we have to make around giving them the best academic experience. So in spite of pain we went through in middle and high school for both families, we decided to continue on this trajectory of documenting this story.”
“American Promise” is an incredibly complex, moving and ultimately inspiring look at the difficulties even middle-class black boys face in navigating the academic world, particularly in a predominantly white setting. As I said in the Ebony story, probably the most powerful message Brewster and Stephenson took away from the experience was the importance of love in a boy’s life.
Brewster said middle-class black families are often afraid to discuss the struggles their kids are having academically because it might be too stigmatizing or embarrassing—and as a result, these subjects never get discussed and parents who might be going through the same challenges rarely get a chance to share with other parents who can understand them.
“It’s the light that’s liberating,” said Brewster, the psychologist. “We’re always threatened by an imagined perception of us. And when that perception enters the room, even the possibility of it, we shut down. And so when we shut down, when we don’t communicate because we fear that it may be true, we may be dumb, we may be able to jump tall buildings in a single bound, we contribute to it being a self-fulfilling prophecy. By sharing information, being able to discuss this in the open, that’s our salvation.”
“The most common response we get when African-American families see this film, white families too, is, ‘You guys are brave,'” Brewster continued. “Why are we brave? We didn’t walk into the barrel of a gun. We didn’t jump off the precipice. All we did was say that we’re worried about our son failing, about being perceived as x, y or z. And it turns out that’s radical.”
While they started out with somewhat rose-colored expectations of an opportunity to chronicle Dalton’s efforts to make its wealthy and white student body more diverse, the parents soon found themselves thrown headlong into the same challenges black parents across the nation face with their sons—Was he being singled out more quickly for discipline? Was he being labeled by teachers as hyperactive because of his race? How was he going to figure out where he fit in if he was being labeled as different by the white kids at Dalton and also by his black friends back in Brooklyn?
“These are issues we feel are particular to the African-American experience and that transcend class—how high a price do we have to pay to get academic excellence? Does it have to be at the expense of his sense of self?” Stephenson asked.
The filmmakers hope their movie can spark dialogue amongst black parents, to get them sharing with each other and commiserating with each other about the challenges they are facing with their boys—and their girls—raising them in an age of hip hop’s corrupting influences, competing with a panoply of enticing gadgets and video games. (The couple actually started out following two girls in addition to Idris and Seun, but the girls dropped out by the fourth grade because they were becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the relentless scrutiny.)
“What propelled us to become artists in the filmmaking world is the fact that we believe in the power of stories,” Stephenson said. “We believe if you have a strong story that’s intimate and personal, it will immediately become universal and transcend differences. So you can see the humanity of people and you can transcend stereotypes.”
Check out the trailer below to get a peek at the amazing odyssey of these two boys and their families. Then be sure to find “American Promise” when it is shown in a city near you.
Nick Chiles is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and a New York Times bestselling author of 12 books, including the upcoming "The Rejected Stone: Al Sharpton and the Path To American Leadership," which he co-authored with Al Sharpton.