Considering the AMERICAN PROMISE with Michele Stephenson & Joe Brewster
Joe Brewster and Michele Stephenson, San Francisco, CA 10/28/13
AMERICAN PROMISE, which debuts on PBS’ POV on February 4, 2014, is on my top ten list of films from 2013. It does what a great film should do, make you question your assumptions, and give you people that you care about deeply. That said, here’s a revisit of my interview with the filmmakers, and the parents, covered in AMERICAN PROMISE.
To say that filmmakers Michele Stephenson and Joe Brewster were fearless when depicting their family honestly in AMERICAN PROMISE is an understatement of epic proportions. Their doc, which chronicles 13 years in the life of their son, Idris, and his best friend, Seun, as they navigate their school years, doesn’t flinch when it comes to people losing their tempers, losing their faith, and, in one moment of the most powerful cinema I’ve ever seen, losing pride in racial identity. To see Idris as an eighth-grader ask Brewster in a voice that is quiet but infinitely sad, if it wouldn’t be easier if he were white is a moment of reckoning not just for this father and son, but for society itself. How Brewster handled that moment, with candor and nuance is also how he and wife Stephenson handled the other issued brought up in their riveting, visceral look at how schools, public and private, fail African-American boys. That’s why, though the film focuses on that segment of the school population, it’s a window into the larger issue of how even the most well-meaning of schools as both schools depicted in AMERICAN PROMISE are, fail kids in ways that break your heart and raise your ire.
The conversation on October 28, 2013 also included the impact of unconscious racism, the book, Promises Kept, that the film inspired, and how the pair went about finding an editor to go through the hundreds of hours of very personal, very emotional footage. An editor that they could trust enough to get angry with.
AMERICAN PROMISE tracks two African-American boys, filmmakers’ son Idris and his friend Shaun Summers, and their experience of the American educational system, public and private, from kindergarten through high-school graduation and the prospect of college. Both boys start out at Dalton, an independent private school, that represents the American Dream, and despite positive intentions all around, intangibles begin to seep into the process, sending one boy to a public high school where his academic and emotional needs might be better served. The film poses many questions about the educational process when it comes to children of color, the role of teachers, administrators, and parents, without falling into the trap of trying to provide easy answers to complicated issues. It’s also a starkly honest look at families struggling to do what they consider to be best for their children in the long run, keeping an ever-present eye on the future with sacrifices in the present. Brewster and Stephenson’s previous work includes THE KEEPER, and SLAYING GOLIATH.
Click to listen to the interview (24:20) AMERICAN PROMISE — Michele Stephenson & Joe Brewster Interview.