This long-gestating documentary by Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson follows their son Idris and his friend Seun Summers over twelve years, from kindergarten through high school graduation. Meandering, with a somewhat indulgent run time of two plus hours, the film sifts through the largely quotidian moments in the lives of its two subjects. Inferred from the title, and directly stated on the film’s PBS website, American Promise bills itself as a look at “the black male educational achievement gap,” but that seems more like an intellectual goal than one achieved through the storytelling. While it’s certainly a theme of the film, the filmmakers barely address this as a social and political issue, never straying far from the intensely personal nature of the footage, particularly of themselves and their son Idris. What emerges instead is a more idiosyncratic look at two couples trying to help their sons navigate the world, and their attempts to manage their own hopes and expectations. In its strongest moments American Promise reveals how lives have their own fateful trajectory, no matter what conditions we put on them.
The film has its origin in Idris and Seun’s young acceptance to Dalton, the venerable, elite private school on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. It’s presented like Wonka’s Golden Ticket, a VIP pass for middle-class black boys from Brooklyn to enter the rarefied world of wealthy Manhattan, and to achieve the success that comes with that inclusion. Both sets of parents express some hesitation about putting their sons in that environment, though ultimately both embrace the opportunity. For the next twelve years Idris toughs it out, through an ADHD diagnosis, middling grades, and constant, unrelenting pressure from both of his parents. Seun struggles, and ends up leaving Dalton to attend Benjamin Banneker Academy, a public high school in Brooklyn. During that time Seun has to cope with his mother Stacey’s battle with cancer, and the tragic accidental death of his youngest brother. In high school is when, and how, the two boys’ stories diverge most drastically.
From the start Idris is a slight and sensitive kid. Defeat on the basketball court, or the classroom, repeatedly sends him into hiding under his covers, often in tears. He’s sweet and goofy, and lacks that hard, driven instinct for success no matter the cost. His parents are made of flintier material (forged from adversity, as their brief interviews suggest). There seems to be a big disconnect between Idris’s nature and their hopes for his future (the word “perform” is repeated like a mantra in the Brewster house). Following the lead of Joe and Michèle’s unrealistically high expectations, Idris gets his heart set on going to Stanford, his father’s alma mater. When Idris logs on and receives a string of rejections from his “reach” schools (including Stanford), we don’t see much in the way of comfort. Joe’s response is to ask, “What did we learn from this?” Idris mumbles a reply, and Michèle snaps, “That’s not the kind of analysis that a Dalton student would make.” (Yeesh!) His parents’ anger and disappointment soon mellows into apology and support, but there’s a palpable feeling that the entire family wonders whether Dalton, and all of the sacrifice that choice entailed, was worth it.
Seun and his parents Tony and Stacey seem much more measured in their expectations not only of Seun, but also of what the brand of an elite school like Dalton can do for him. Though his family’s crises take their toll, Seun seems more grounded than Idris, and less conflicted about his race. Shots of them at school are telling: at Dalton we see few black students, and at Banneker we see no white students. While Idris is being coached by his parents on how to pitch himself to Stanford, Seun travels to West Africa with a school club and discusses being “a product of the diaspora.” There’s far less of the cautious sense of containment felt in the scenes at Dalton. Even when Idris’s class discusses race as related to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man it feels intellectualized and oddly flat. The most honest commentary comes from Banneker’s principal Dr. Daryl Rock, who puts it this way: “I’m not against kids being in diverse environments… but white people never talk about that, they never say, ‘I want to take my kid out of this all white school and put them in a black school so things will be more diverse.’”
This brief interview with Rock is like a flare in the dark. While I found American Promise interesting, it largely leaves the audience to draw our own conclusions. The way the film is structured seems to suggest that an individual’s character is what enables them to “succeed,” at least where success is measured by college admittance. I had hoped for more of a critique of the structures that perpetuate inequality of opportunity. Institutions like Dalton now have at least the desire for some kind of superficial diversity, but challenging privilege takes engagement and a deep willingness to address the complexities of race and class, a willingness usually beyond the scope of a private institution whose existence depends on donations and expensive tuitions. But if there are structural reasons why students like Idris and Seun are not able to achieve at the highest level at Dalton, I still don’t know what they are.