Filmmakers Joe Brewster and Michele Stephenson dedicated 12 years of their family’s life to “American Promise,” and the payoff turns out to be more than just a glorified homemovie. In this intimate look at what it’s like to be young, black and male in a largely white private school, Brewster and Stephenson chart the progress of their son, Idris, and his friend and peer, Seun, through Middle School at New York’s prestigious Dalton School, and then as they go their separate ways, to high school. The result isn’t as revelatory or dramatic as like-minded landmark “Hoop Dreams,” but remains riveting nonetheless.
It helps that Idris and Seun, who were 5 when filming began, are oncamera naturals who grew up comfortable with a recurring commitment to sharing their lives in front of the lens.
True to its title, “American Promise” opens with the boys, and especially their parents, optimistic about the opportunities a school like Dalton provides. But only a quarter of their classmates are children of color, which slowly starts to make the boys feel isolated and worries their parents. While Seun’s mother, working-class nurse Stacey, initially expresses hope that attending Dalton will make her son comfortable around white people in a way she’s never been herself, she’s less thrilled when he tries to brush his gums so hard they bleed, hoping that they’ll change color. Idris, too, shares an illuminating story about changing the way he speaks around buddies at a summer basketball camp, compared with the way he talks to kids at Dalton.
Both boys start to struggle academically as they get older; Seun is eventually diagnosed with dyslexia, while the school suggests Idris may have ADHD, which Joe quickly dismisses. By the time they graduate from eighth grade, Seun’s grades have fallen to a point where he’s forced to attend a public high school, while Idris continues on at Dalton. It’s here that the film begins to lose the thread on Seun, as devastating family tragedies occur and the once-close friendship between the two boys evaporates.
At the same time, the film digs deeper into Idris’ life and the filmmakers’ own struggles as parents. Stephenson accuses Brewster of living out his childhood basketball dreams through their kids (Idris makes Dalton’s varsity team when he’s a freshman), and Idris recoils from his parents’ controlling schedules and latenight homework sessions. These sections, showing Stephenson and Brewster’s willingness to include footage that depicts them in a less-than-flattering light, are most welcome and effective.
Condensing more than a decade in the lives of two young men into a two-hour-and-20-minute movie is a tall order, but “American Promise” succeeds in touching on a wealth of subjects without overreaching. Friendships, dating lives (or lack thereof), extracurricular activities, classroom discussions and the election of President Obama are all carefully woven into the fabric of the film. Brewster and Stephenson even include clear-eyed interviews with Dalton administrators who acknowledge both their aspirations for a diverse student body and the frustrations they’ve encountered in achieving that goal.
Although the open-ended nature of the project necessitated that Brewster and Stephenson make adjustments in their concept, techniques and equipment over the years, the finished product has a smoothness and consistency that skillfully conceals any incongruity behind the scenes.