'American Promise' chronicles the diverging paths of two African-American teenagers

The parents of one of the boys filmed two teenagers as one attended a prestigious learning institute and the other entered public school.

By , Film critic

I’m a sucker for documentaries that, like Michael Apted’s “Up” series, chronicle lives over decades. Inevitably these films prove far too unwieldy, but there is nevertheless something inherently moving about recording the progression of a person’s life. Movies are particularly well positioned to offer this gift.

The Sundance hit “American Promise,” according to its married codirectors, Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson, was inspired by Apted’s series. It follows their son Idris and his best friend Seun, two African-American kids from Brooklyn, over a period of 13 years from kindergarten through high school graduation. Both boys are initially enrolled in Manhattan’s prestigious Dalton School, a one-hour commute from Brooklyn. By high school, their paths diverge: Idris, a middling student, remains at Dalton while Seun, struggling, and with a condition diagnosed as dyslexia, ends up in a Brooklyn public school that is as predominantly black as Dalton is predominantly white.

Besides being a filmmaker, Brewster is a psychiatrist who specializes in “organizational analysis.” Stephenson, a graduate of Columbia Law School, has worked on human rights documentaries. Initially the decision to film their son’s educational life probably made sense as an adjunct, or maybe even a culmination, of their own careers. But the results are, unavoidably, a muddle. Is this a movie about race, about class, about the American dream?

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I suppose the filmmakers would answer: all of the above. Certainly the film’s title suggests that. But what we see is much more ungainly.

Despite the film’s intentions, Idris and Seun can’t really stand in for anybody but themselves. What they go through, as middle-class kids in a privileged school system, seems far less race-based than the filmmakers would have us believe.

Idris’s academic difficulties exasperate his parents, tough-love specialists whose ambitions for their son seem overwrought from the get-go. The film opens with an onscreen quote from Brewster and Stephenson: “Expecting great things, we set out to document the boys’ entire education.” Right away, the ominous note is struck: Ultimately these kids must have let their parents down.

But only in a universe of impossibly high standards could either of these boys – both bright and companionable, both with learning disabilities and, in Seun’s case, family tragedy – be regarded as disappointments. When Idris, with his mother, checks out college-admissions notices on the computer and registers the rejections, we feel for the boy, especially since his father, on the phone, responds to the news by deeming his son “brilliant” but “lazy.” But we also know that the ritual of kids not getting into their dream schools cuts across all racial and class barriers.

The making of this movie must have been increasingly bizarre for Idris. Surviving adolescence is difficult enough without having your mother and father film it. I’m glad I saw this movie because it allowed me to spend time with two engaging boys whose young lives are worth chronicling. But those lives can’t bear the symbolic weight the filmmakers place on them. Nor should they have to. Grade: B- (This documentary film is not rated.)

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