American Promise

Parenting is one of the toughest jobs out there. And it doesn’t get easier when you’re a black parent, raising a black boy in urban America.

Meet Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson, lawyers and filmmakers in New York City. Fourteen years ago, they set out to document their experience of raising their son Idris, with the goal of providing him the best education possible from kindergarten to college. With high hopes and great expectations, they start filming as 5-year-old Idris and his best friend Seun enroll at Dalton, one of Manhattan’s most prestigious private schools. Since the boys will be some of the only black students at the school (at the time, Dalton was 75% white), Joe and Michèle have some reservations. Ultimately, though, they believe the school will broaden their son’s horizons and open doors of opportunity. American Promise tracks Idris’ and Seun’s progress through their high school graduation, exploring the complexities of race, culture, family conflict, and motivation. (Disclosure: I have served as an adviser to the engagement campaign associated with the film.)

I love this film. There is no agenda other than to explore the triumphs, failures, possibilities and tensions of parenting for education success. Many scenes reveal experiences most parents know well: late nights agonizing over unfinished homework, exasperated conversations after parent teacher conferences, and strained discussions about college applications. Others hone in on more of the specific difficulties of parenting a young black man in America. When Idris is in the 6th grade, Joe and Michèle invite the parents of other black boys at Dalton to their home to discuss the issues their sons face. Many of them are struggling academically. They encounter stereotyping from other white students and different treatment from teachers. Seun’s mom wonders: “We put our children in this environment, and if they are seeing it now, what perception are they going to have of themselves?” Her worries echo a recurring question for all four of the parents featured in the film: will sending our children to this school help them in the long run, or hinder them?

Watching how Idris’ and Seun’s stories play out, there isn’t a clear answer. Seun eventually runs into academic difficulty and transfers to a primarily black public high school. (Dalton’s middle school director comments: “I wish we could be all things to all people, but that is not possible… I don’t think it was frankly a good match for him.”) Idris stays at Dalton, but has his fair share of academic and social trials. The film explores the impact that the different school environments have on Idris’ and Seun’s trajectories, but there are no obvious takeaways. Both boys’ parents are deeply committed to and want the best for their children: the movie challenges viewers to think about what “best” means for them, regardless of race or ethnicity.

The role that race plays in influencing children’s and families’ educational experiences pervades the film but doesn’t overpower it, allowing the boys’ stories to prompt further consideration of the subject rather than attempting to provide a definitive answer. As one of Dalton’s teachers notes, the kinds of obstacles that Idris and Seun face are more prevalent with black boys than with black girls. “There’s a cultural disconnect between independent schools and African American boys,” she remarks, but the question is, why?  She desperately wants to know the answer, and so do I.

American Promise made me think about how my daughters, now in middle school, will describe the quality of their work and effort to their friends when they are juniors in high school applying to college. In one telling scene, Idris sits with a group of friends in the school library, discussing transcripts and college aspirations. One girl boasts that she can get in just the way she made it through Dalton – faking her work and not trying “at all”. “I commend you,” Idris says, then with a straight face and a somber tone adds, “In college, you’re not going to be able to bullshit your way through anything, I’m telling you that right now.”

This film does not end with a five part formula for fixing education in America. It does better. It inspires the viewer to consider foundational questions such as: What is my vision of success for my family and my child? What are my child’s sources of motivation? How do I inspire my child to aim high for his or herself? How do my actions motivate my child, or potentially limit his or her growth? For parents, these are the most fundamental questions of all.

American Promise is opening in theaters in select cities around the country over the next few months. Go see it!

And if you care about helping to close the black male achievement gap in this country, please join the campaign.

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