Sundance: ‘American Promise’ explores role of race in education (+video)

Published: Saturday, Oct. 3 2015 10:25 p.m. MDT

"American Promise" follows the lives of two African-American boys — Idris Brewster, left, and Seun Summers — starting with kindergarten and all the way through high school. (Sundance Film Festival) "American Promise" follows the lives of two African-American boys — Idris Brewster, left, and Seun Summers — starting with kindergarten and all the way through high school. (Sundance Film Festival)

“American Promise” chronicles the journey of two African-American boys from carefree kindergarteners to mature high school graduates. The documentary premiered Jan. 21 at the Sundance Film Festival and subsequently claimed the festival's U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award.

Many of the obstacles Idris Brewster and Seun Summers confronted during their 13-year scholastic odyssey apparently emanated from latent racial bias. But with unwavering support from their families, both boys eventually overcame considerable trials and ultimately emerged from the kiln of adolescence with steely resolve and sustained enthusiasm for the next chapters of their lives.

A family affair

If the film’s portrayal of Idris and Seun feels particularly warm and affectionate, it’s because “American Promise” co-directors Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson are not only married to one another, but also the parents of Idris Brewster. In other words, the directors weren’t just supervising the production of a documentary across 13 years — they were also “living it” in a very real way.

“The best part of this process is looking at the finished product,” Joe Brewster told the Deseret News. “It’s sort of like (riding) a roller coaster: I don’t particularly enjoy the ups and downs, but when I get off the ride and I look back at what I accomplished, it was a great ride to be on.”

The project that would become “American Promise” commenced in 1999 when Brewster and Stephenson started shooting video of Idris and his best friend, Seun. At the time, the boys were matriculating into the kindergarten program at the prestigious — and predominantly white — Dalton School in Manhattan.

During their formal education, Idris and Seun faced a variety of obstacles — some real, others imagined. In the film, Idris gets suspended from school for three days — two days for allegedly roughhousing, and one more for refusing to admit to his misstep. Seun is diagnosed with dyslexia. At one point, the boys are the only two members of their class to be referred into an after-school tutoring program — and the film suggests race played a part in such a peculiar “coincidence.” Idris eventually receives a diagnosis of ADHD.

As the film progresses, the directors’ roles evolved. Brewster and Stephenson explained during a question-and-answer session following the film’s Jan. 21 premiere that, around the time Idris and Seun reached adolescence, the mere presence of a middle-aged adult with video camera in hand hindered the boys from acting naturally. So the directors ceased shooting much footage themselves, and instead opted to bring in younger cameramen who would feel more like peers than authority figures to Idris and Seun.

Additionally, once their son Idris metamorphosed from cute kindergartner to strong-willed teenager, Brewster and Stephenson realized they were increasingly prominent figures in the documentary. In other words, their parenting strategies and interventions became interwoven with Idris’ story.

The directors made the conscious decision to not cut any footage just because it portrayed them personally in an unflattering light — and indeed, in several later scenes of “American Promise,” Brewster and Stephenson appear to be as frazzled and frustrated as one might reasonably expect any rational parents of teenagers to become.

Skillful editing

The most impressive technical aspect of “American Promise” is its editing. Somehow Brewster, Stephenson and their team took more than 800 hours of footage and turned it into a 142-minute documentary that maintained its focus and momentum.

At one point during production, Brewster and Stephenson hired an editor to index and catalogue all existing video. Just that process of indexing and cataloguing required an entire year.

The first step in whittling down so much footage into documentary format was to identify anything that could comprise a coherent scene in the final product. Using that distinction as a first line of filtering still left directors Brewster and Stephenson with a rough cut lasting 32 hours.

Together with their team, Brewster and Stephenson watched those 32 hours of footage across four days. They then pared that version down to six hours and change. During each subsequent edit, they tightened the scope of what they wanted the documentary to address.

As a result of so much focused attention to detail, the final version of “American Promise” feels relentless. It’s as if every scene in the documentary necessarily advances a narrative with relevance to all of society: two families urging their boys forward to obtain the caliber of education they will need in order to become successful men.

Brewster, a psychiatrist with degrees from Stanford and Harvard, told the Deseret News, “We strongly believe that parents as well as educators have to be more demanding. … You have to demand that these boys achieve at a high level, and you have to give them some emotional support for that achievement at the same time. It’s a balancing act; it really requires seeing them as capable, as potentially able to be successful. And that’s complicated.”

PBS plans to air "American Promise" at some point during 2013. Although Sundance films are not rated, "American Promise" would likely receive a PG-13 for language and one scene of underage drinking.

Jamshid Ghazi Askar is a graduate of BYU's J. Reuben Clark Law School and member of the Utah State Bar. Contact him at jaskar@desnews.com or 801-236-6051.

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company