American Promise Doesn’t Deliver

by Jillian Kay Melchior
The documentary misses the mark on race but still has merit.

American Promise is a documentary that’s supposed to be about race and education, an issue it fails to cogently address. But the film still has merit, becoming an unintentionally fascinating study in parenting and overexposure.

In an era when a child’s first Facebook photo may be his ultrasound, Brooklyn filmmakers Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson have still managed to outdo themselves: They spent 13 years recording their son Idris and his best friend, Seun, starting from when the two boys began attending Dalton School, one of the most prestigious private schools in not only New York but also the nation. Idris and Seun, both black, find themselves in the minority at Dalton.

The sheer scope of the film is its most impressive feature, almost certainly contributing to its acclaim at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, where it won a special jury prize. More than a decade of Idris and Seun’s lives — and more than 800 hours of recording — has been packed into a 135-minute documentary (which still feels a bit long from the theater seat). Viewers watch as the two friends grow from adorable little boys into admirable young men, with all the pain and triumph of childhood and adolescence captured in vivid detail.

The rawness of the film puts the boys’ vulnerability on display, and it sometimes feels exploitative. The documentary is truly show-all: There’s a close-up of Idris putting in his contact lenses, and later he’s shown pulling his pants on over his boxers; we see him weep the night he learns that, after a year as the youngest kid on the varsity basketball team, he’s only qualified for JV. We see Seun get his tongue pierced; we see his frustration and determination as he struggles to do homework despite his dyslexia; and, most agonizing, we see him deeply mourn the sudden death of his little brother. The documentary is even more expository than reality TV because it’s not staged and because the stakes — a good educational outcome and, subsequently, a fulfilling life — are high.

American Promise is also full of cringe-inducing moments in parenting. Dalton School is known for academic rigor — if it weren’t so hard, it wouldn’t be so successful — and Idris’s parents in particular micromanage him. They hover over him as he writes his papers, reading over his shoulder. At one point, they develop a grid to account for every hour of his day. And both sets of parents inflict guilt: When Idris is turned down at Stanford, the college of his dreams, his father berates him as lazy. Likewise, after Seun’s little brother perishes in an accident in the family home, his father marks the one-year anniversary of the death by praising two of his children — and publicly encouraging Seun to work harder.

Of course, raising children isn’t easy, so maybe the parents in American Promise deserve some slack. They do come across as deeply invested in their children, and their frustrations are relatable. Teenage boys will always want to sleep in, even when they shouldn’t, and they’re periodically wont to forget their homework at school. But children who are never permitted any personal responsibility can hardly be blamed for failing to be as responsible as a helicopter parent demands.

Viewers get the sense that both sets of parents expect Greatness out of their beloved children — and out of that desire, Brewster and Stephenson ignore that they have the footage for a touching coming-of-age film. Instead, they try, and fail, to use the boys’ stories to say something ponderously significant and general about race and education in America.

To be fair, it would be hard to be one of the very few black kids in a mostly white school, and how both boys cope with that difficulty is shown in extensive detail. But middle school and high school are tough, in large part because everyone is different from his peers in some way, despite valiant efforts to fit in. And growing up might be even more challenging with parents who chronicle every moment on camera, asking intrusive personal questions they intend to broadcast later to a national audience. But Brewster and Stephenson zero in on race, worrying that Idris and Seun are being singled out, targeted, and suspected because they are black.

And, at its most objectionable, American Promise could be interpreted as a subtle endorsement of segregation — an appalling and offensive stance. Early in the film, Seun’s mother talks about how she wants her son to be comfortable around white people, admitting that she still isn’t. And Seun eventually leaves Dalton for a majority-black school. Filmgoers see him connecting with his ethnicity, especially on a field trip to Benin in west Africa. At one point, Seun says that “you feel some kind of comfort when you’re with people of your own race.”

Meanwhile, Idris, still at Dalton, is shown espousing the virtues of cardigans, agonizing over being teased by black friends for sounding white, and wondering, after his parents’ very direct line of questioning, whether his girl troubles may be a direct result of the fact that he’s black. He suggests that if he were white, things might be better for him. “Is it true?” he asks his parents, but they say nothing in response.

But the footage chosen doesn’t directly support the suggestion of racism that’s pervasive throughout the documentary. In fact, Dalton School administrators and teachers repeatedly express their commitment to the boys’ success, and classmates are shown embracing Idris and Seun, whom they’ve grown up with. Nor does the film address some of the subtler questions, such as why black girls are, statistically speaking, more successful than their male counterparts in the same environment. And it misses the opportunity to highlight the importance of school choice: Dalton School was a good fit for Idris but maybe not Seun, who benefited from having more than one educational option.

Regardless, both Idris and Seun end the film with promising futures. Their parents, on the other hand, seem somewhat disappointed, and Brewster and Stephenson fail to draw any coherent conclusions. Maybe that’s just the parenting experience in a nutshell. But despite some very poignant moments, American Promise doesn’t quite reach its potential.

— Jillian Kay Melchior is a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow for the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.