American Promise

American Promise represents a maturing of a genre that has been growing ever since the introduction of high-quality consumer video cameras, the first-person documentary. For the most part, this style of filmmaking still yields glorified home movies, meandering and self-indulgent, with limited appeal.  But American Promise demonstrates how powerful and stimulating this type of film can be when it is done well. The film’s directors are Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson, a middle-class African-American couple who devoted 13 years to this project, beginning when their five-year-old son Idris and his best friend Seun were both enrolled in a private prep-school on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. At first, the idea was to document the experience of two black boys in this elite, predominantly white, school.   But the project continued over more than a decade, and the result is a rich mediation on issues of race, class, the educational system, personal responsibility, choice, and, above all, parenting in contemporary America.

The film succeeds in showing audiences much of what we’d expect to see in a film that presents an insider’s view of the achievement gap between young black males and the rest of American society. What is less expected is the self-examination (almost an expose) of the rigorous, hands-on parenting style so common in contemporary times. Brewster, a producer of both fiction and documentaries, clearly has the eye of a director. His visual flair is evident from the very beginning of the movie, in a sequence where the two boys leave for their first day at their new school. Brewster’s consumer level camera captures the moment in a well-composed high angle shot that doesn’t feel staged. Indeed nothing about the obviously intrusive nature of filming every aspect of his family’s life plays as inauthentic. But Brewster is also distinctly a director in terms of the rigid way he guides his son through life. At times it can be very difficult to witness what the teenage Idris must endure just to meet the minimum requirements of his school and his parents.

The films succeeds mainly because Idris and Seun are both so natural and compelling on screen, and because their lives take different paths as a result of different choices and circumstances. The film gains dimension due to the warts-and-all approach. At times both Brewster and Stephenson reflect on how they as children were forced to learn how to take care of themselves, and to develop their own sense of identity in a world where the odds were stacked against their success. They made the strong choice, intentional or not, to avoid directly addressing whether they should have allowed their son to develop in the same way.  Which leaves us to ponder this, and many other questions, on our own. 

Directed by Joe Brewster and Michele Stephenson
With: Idris Brewster, Oluwaseun Summers, Joe Brewster, and Michele Stephenson

Cinematography: Alfredo Alcantara, Margaret Byrne, Jon Stuyvesant, and Errol Webber Jr.
Editing: Erin Casper, Mary Manhardt, and Andrew Siwoff
Music: Miriam Cutler

Runtime: 135 min
Release Date: 18 October 2013
Aspect Ratio: 1.85 : 1