Two African-American Boys Enter a Prestigious Private School and Their Families Confront the Opportunities and Frustrations Presented by the Changing Face of Success in America
A Co-production of Rada Film Group with ITVS and POV’sDiverse Voices Project, Which Receive Funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting; Film Is Part ofAmerican Graduate: Let’s Make It Happen. A Co-presentation with the National Black Programming Consortium.
“American Promise provides an outstanding, honest portrayal of the complexities involved in steering black boys to success where cultural barriers and environmental obstacles still remain.”
—Alvin F. Poussaint, MD, Professor of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School
American Promise is an intimate and provocative account, recorded over 12 years, of the experiences of two middle-class African-American boys who entered a very prestigious–and historically white–private school on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. The Dalton School had made a commitment to recruit students of color, and five-year-old best friends Idris Brewster and Oluwaseun (Seun) Summers of Brooklyn were two of the gifted children who were admitted. The boys were placed in a demanding environment that provided new opportunities and challenges, if little reflection of their cultural identities.
Idris’ parents, Joe, a Harvard- and Stanford-trained psychiatrist, and Michèle, a Columbia Law School graduate and filmmaker, decided to film the boys’ progress starting in 1999. They and members of the large Summers family soon found themselves struggling not only with kids’ typical growing pains and the kinds of racial issues one might expect, but also with surprising class, gender and generational gaps. American Promise, which traces the boys’ journey from kindergarten through high school graduation, finds the greatest challenge for the families–and perhaps the country–is to close the black male educational achievement gap, which has been called “the civil rights crusade of the 21st century.”
Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson’s American Promise, winner of a Special Jury Award at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, has its national broadcast premiere on Monday, Feb. 3, 2014 at 10 p.m. (check local listings), closing the 26th season of the award-winning POV (Point of View) on PBS. American television’s longest-running independent documentary series, POV is the winner of a 2013 MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective Institutions.
The Dalton School, which provides classes from kindergarten through high school, is a launching pad for success, but also a high-pressure learning environment for all its students. Joe and Michèle, along with Seun’s parents, Tony, a systems engineer for CBS, and Stacey, a nursing care manager for elder health, have worked hard to build their careers despite early disadvantages and are united in their drive to have their sons succeed at school and in life. But there are differences in outlook. Michèle, with Latino-Haitian roots, has some hesitation about sending Idris to private school, where she is afraid he will lose touch with his heritage, while Stacey, who hails from Trinidad, wants Seun to learn something she admits she hasn’t–how to be comfortable around white people. While both fathers have high expectations for their sons, Joe is particularly demanding, while Tony tends to be more forgiving of Seun’s ups and downs.
Idris and Seun are bright, playful boys. Idris is outgoing, while Seun is a bit shy. At school, the boys begin to see the differences between themselves and their classmates. The very young Seun is found trying to brush the color out of his gums because, as he explains, some people say that “black is ugly.” Idris, an enthusiastic basketball player at school and in the neighborhood, finds that the way he is comfortable speaking at home and in school is mocked by other black kids as “talking white.” As puberty looms, Idris feels a distinct disadvantage when he is turned down for dates and suspects that race must be the reason. He asks his parents an innocent, heartbreaking question: “Isn’t it better if I were white?” Along with getting good (and not so good) grades, both boys begin to have emotional and academic problems that confound parents and teachers alike.
Seun’s father, Tony, sheds a humorous light on the situation when he recalls being the only black kid in an all-white class. When the class learned the story of Harriet Tubman, the students turned around and looked at him in unison. At a meeting, the African-American parents of Dalton sixth graders find that their boys are being tracked into special tutoring programs, which may, inadvertently, reinforce some of the root causes of the black male achievement gap.
It soon becomes clear that the situation with Idris, Seun and the others is not as straightforward as simply reflecting the disparities between blacks and whites in America. African-American girls at Dalton and in similar educational settings regularly outperform their male peers, a gender disparity that baffles parents and teachers. Certainly the boys spend a lot of energy on sports, upon which their parents place great emphasis. Idris, nursing dreams of a basketball career–improbable, given his modest height–experiences wins and losses on the school court. Seun is diagnosed with dyslexia and Idris with ADHD, conditions that are widespread among American children and adolescents of all backgrounds.
Both boys struggle with the weight of parental and school expectations, as any kid would, though for Idris and Seun, the weight might be even heavier.American Promise is especially revelatory in showing how the fight to succeed hits home in these two black families. The parents are often frustrated by what they see as their sons’ relative lack of drive, compared to their own experiences.
The boys’ paths then diverge. Upon graduating middle school, Seun leaves Dalton to attend the mostly black Benjamin Banneker Academy, a public high school in Brooklyn, where he thrives, traveling to West Africa with his school’s Africa Tours Club and setting his sights on a career in graphic design (to his parents’ consternation). Idris stays at Dalton through high school, but is disappointed when he doesn’t get into Stanford, his dad’s alma mater. Now dating a girl he adores, he is accepted into Occidental College in California and exuberantly comes to see that what seemed a setback is just another challenge to overcome. Even Joe, the Stanford and Harvard graduate who admits that he has at times been too hard on Idris, accepts that there are roads to success that don’t run straight through the Ivy League. Seun gets into the State University of New York, Fredonia, where he will study graphic arts, and his parents, too, realize there are many paths to success and happiness.
The ins and outs of familial relationships, as parents push for success and boys struggle to find their own identities, plus the challenges and tragedies that life brings, such as Stacey’s colon cancer and the accidental death of Seun’s beloved younger brother, form much of the drama of American Promise. At stake, beyond the challenges of being white or black in America, is the meaning of success in our country. “All American families want to give their children the opportunity to succeed. But the truth is, opportunity is just the first step, particularly for families raising black boys,” says co-director and co-producer Michèle Stephenson. “We hope American Promise shines a light on these issues.”
“Our goal is to empower boys, their parents and educators to pursue educational opportunities, especially to help close the black male achievement gap,” adds her husband and filmmaking partner, Joe Brewster.
American Promise is a co-production of Rada Film Group, ITVS and POV’sDiverse Voices Project (DVP) ITVS and DVP receive funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). The film is part of American Graduate: Let’s Make It Happen, a national public media initiative made possible by CPB to identify and implement solutions to the dropout crisis and help parents and teachers keep students on the path to a successful future.
The American Promise Campaign (www.americanpromise.org)
In partnership with trusted organizations around the country, the American Promise team will launch a national campaign to mobilize young people, families and educators to identify ways that Americans can better support black boys’ social and emotional needs and encourage people to consider the role they play in advancing success for all children. This endeavor will be supported by a set of strategic tools in 2013 and 2014: a special campaign with Big Brothers Big Sisters’ Mentoring Brothers in Action program beginning at Sundance in January 2013; a companion book published to coincide with the POV broadcast; guided local parent-student support groups; a mobile app that will regularly provide tips for parents; and more.
On Jan. 14, 2013, Spiegel & Grau will publish PROMISES KEPT: Raising Black Boys to Succeed in School and in Life-Lessons Learned from the 12-Year American Promise Project, by Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson with Hilary Beard, to coincide with the airing of the POV documentary. An urgent and groundbreaking practical guide, this is the essential book for parents, caregivers, educators and others concerned about the fate of black boys in America. WhereAmerican Promise raises provocative questions, PROMISES KEPT delivers answers, combining insights Brewster and Stephenson derived from their own experiences with the latest research on closing the black male achievement gap and providing readers with an unprecedented toolkit full of practical strategies from infancy through the teenaged years. Spiegel & Grau will support the book with national outreach and marketing campaigns across multiple platforms.
About the Filmmakers:
Michèle Stephenson, Producer and Director A graduate of McGill University and Columbia Law School, Michèle Stephenson uses her background in critical studies, race and human rights to inform her documentary work. Her Panamanian and Haitian heritage has also fueled her passion to tackle stories on communities of color and human rights. An early pioneer in the Web 2.0 revolution, Stephenson used video and the Internet to structure human rights campaigns and train people from around the globe in video Internet advocacy. Her work has appeared on PBS, Showtime, MTV and other outlets. Stephenson’s honors include the Silverdocs Diversity Award and the Henry Hampton Award for Excellence in Film and Digital Media.
Joe Brewster, Producer and Director Joe Brewster and his partner, Michèle Stephenson, have produced and directed award-winning feature documentaries and narrative films. Brewster is a Harvard- and Stanford-educated psychiatrist who specializes in organizational analysis, the use of psychoanalytical principals to understand and improve organizations. He moved to New York City in 1985 to pursue media studies in the service of social change. In 1992, Brewster sold his first screenplay to the Jackson/McHenry group under the Warner Bros. imprint. In 1996, he wrote and directed The Keeper, which was an official selection in the dramatic narrative competition section of the Sundance Film Festival and garnered numerous national and international awards, including an Independent Spirit Award nomination.
Co-directors/Co-producers: Joe Brewster, Michèle Stephenson
Editors: Erin Casper, Mary Manhardt, Andrew Siwoff
Directors of Photography: Errol Webber, Jr., Alfredo Alcantara, Margaret Byrne, Jon Stuyvesant
Original Score: Miriam Cutler
Co-executive Producer: Dan Cogan
Running Time: 116:46
POV Series Credits:
Executive Producer: Simon Kilmurry
Co-Executive Producer: Cynthia López
Vice President, Programming and Production: Chris White
Series Producer: Andrew Catauro
Awards and Festivals:
- U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for Achievement in Filmmaking, Sundance Film Festival, 2013
- Reva and David Logan Grand Jury Award, Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, 2013
- Official Selection, New York Film Festival, 2013
Independent Television Service funds, presents and promotes award-winning documentaries and dramas on public television, innovative new media projects on the Web, and the Emmy® Award-winning weekly series Independent Lens on Monday nights at 10 p.m. on PBS. Mandated by Congress in 1988 and funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, ITVS has brought more than 1,000 independently produced programs to date to American audiences. Visit itvs.org.
American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen helps local communities identify and implement solutions to the high school dropout crisis. American Graduate demonstrates public media’s commitment to education and its deep roots in every community it serves. Beyond providing programming that educates, informs and inspires, public radio and television stations–locally owned and operated–are an important resource in helping to address critical issues such as the dropout rate. More than 75 public radio and television stations have launched on-the-ground efforts working with community and at-risk youth to keep students on-track to high school graduation. More than 800 partnerships have been formed locally through American Graduate, and CPB is working with Alma and Colin Powell’s America’s Promise Alliance and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.