"American Promise" 13 years in the making | ParkRecord.com

"American Promise" 13 years in the making

Gina Barker, The Park Record

A lot can change in 13 years, a fact Brooklyn-based filmmakers Joe Brewster and Michele Stephenson know all too well. In the couple’s film "American Promise," a project addressing the achievement gap reflected in race and class, the two turn the camera inward to follow their son and a classmate, both African American students, as they start kindergarten and through 13 years of school.

"Throughout the film, we changed as parents," Brewster said. "Our children changed. Even the school changed. I think our message is that we cannot wait for the public school system to implement the structural changes to educate our African American boys. We must become aware of what their needs are band together to provide that."

"American Promise" became a film about the challenges of being a young African American boy in the American education system, though that was not how the project began. The filmmakers intended to document a new diversity program launched at The Dalton School, a prestigious private school in New York City where the two boys were admitted. Dalton is one of the highest ranked private schools in the country, where roughly 30 percent of the student body goes on to MIT, Stanford or Ivy League schools, and Brewster and Stephenson hoped to capture the impact of the diversity program that began in 1999.

"I hold to the belief that Dalton is an amazing school, an amazing educational experience," Brewster said. "Even though my son struggled, he scored off the charts academically. The issue is his social and emotional growth. That began to take a toll early on, being different."

"These kids, by way of implicit bias and assumptions people make about them, is an extra burden for these kids," he added.

Instead, their film documents a 13-year-long story on the struggle of being a minority in a high performing school, the weight of both in race and economic status on their son Idris and his friend Seun. From that carefree car ride to their first day of school to the awkward, initial steps toward dating in middle school and high school, the film is an examination of what seen and unseen pressures are placed on the boys’ shoulders, be it parental expectations, peer pressure or the limited resources available to address the achievement gap.

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According to numerous studies provided by the filmmakers, African American males are not only more likely to attend schools that are under-resourced with poor performance rates, but they are less likely to obtain college degrees, less likely to be selected for gifted and talented programs, and more likely to be classified as mentally challenged by their schools. The odds are stacked, and even in the most comprehensive, best-performing schools in the country, addressing these disparities is a slow, arduous process.

"The reaction (to the film) from, especially from African American boys and men, is the same," Brewster said. "They feel validated. That kind of validation is worth a fortune to them, in part due to these boys both becoming role models, the reluctant role models."

The filmmakers pored over an estimated 800 hours of footage, carefully connecting interviews with Idris and Seun to life moments, the graduation ceremonies and personal tragedies alike. Opening with a pair of surly teenagers discussing the film near its conclusion and suddenly leaping back in time, back to their five-year-old selves, the film covers more than 10 years of education, embracing the flaws, the complexities and the triumphs along the way.

Joe Brewster, a graduate from Harvard and Stanford, and Michele Stephenson, a graduate of the Columbia University School of Law, co-authored a book on parenting entitled "Promises Kept: How to Help Black Boys Succeed in School and in Life," which is scheduled to be released in Fall 2013. For more information on the film, book or projects available to support students, visit http://www.americanpromise.org.


Jan. 21, 2013 @ 6:00 p.m.

Temple Theatre in Park City

Jan. 23, 2013 @ 7:00 p.m.

Redstone Cinema 2 in Park City

Jan. 24, 2013 @ 2:45 p.m.

Broadway Centre Cinema 6 in Salt Lake City

Jan. 25, 2013 @ 11:15 a.m.

The MARC in Park City

Jan. 26, 2013 @ 3:00 p.m.

Yarrow Hotel Theatre in Park City