No one can accuse filmmakers Joe Brewster and Michele Stephenson of taking the easy way out. For 13 years, they followed the educational lives of two African American boys (one of them their son), amassing more than 800 hours of footage.
Edited down to a bit more than two hours, American Promise is a remarkable documentary, though only partially for the reason its creators intended. Though it deals with what they call the question of "race, class, and education for African American boys," it is as interesting for the stories it tells of two young men trying to find their place in the world.
The notion for the movie started when the filmmakers' son, Idris, was accepted into a program at Dalton, one of New York's elite private schools, to make their brand of education accessible to a racially diverse group of kids who otherwise couldn't afford it. His parents initially envisioned recording the lives of a group of kids but ended up with only Idris and his friend Seun, from kindergarten to a bit past high school.
While we see how being black males from Brooklyn's middle-class Fort Greene section was a factor in the kind of experience the boys had, their stories are so specific it is impossible to draw any definitive lessons from what they went through. On the other hand, because the stories are so specific, and play out over such a long period of time, it is hard not to be fascinated by this intimate look at how particular families deal with the challenge of shepherding their children through this all-important experience.
Brewster and Stephenson are key players and the directors (15 people have photography credits), and it is worth noting that they apparently did not feel a need to always present themselves favorably. They are shown being quite tough on Idris in ways that can be hard to watch.
They were well aware of the fish-out-of-water aspect of their son at Dalton, but their hopes - "Dalton will open doors for him for the rest of his life," says Brewster - outweigh their doubts.
Not always acknowledged is how the parents' attitudes - developed through their own life experiences - affect their son. Because of how much determination it took to attain their level of success, they are frustrated that he doesn't seem to possess it.
"I wish he had half the drive I did at that age," Idris' mom says, perhaps not realizing why her son, whose life feels easier than hers, doesn't necessarily share her urgency.
Where these boys end up, and what their parents think about it, is a journey worth observing.
American Promise (*** out of four stars)
Directed by Joe Brewster and Michele Stephenson. Distributed by RFG.
Running time: 2 hours, 20 mins.
Parent's guide: No MPAA rating
Showing at: Ritz Bourse