SUNDANCE: Directors Tease 'The Square,' 'American Promise,' 'Pit Stop,' 'A River Changes Course,' 'This Is Martin Bonner,' 'Who Is Dayani Cristal'
American Promise by Directors Joe Brewster, Michèle Stephenson [U.S. Documentary Competition]
In 1999, filmmakers Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson turned the camera on themselves and began filming their five-year-old son, Idris, and his best friend, Seun, as they started kindergarten at the prestigious Dalton School just as the private institution was committing to diversify its student body. Their cameras continued to follow both families for another 12 years as the paths of the two boys diverged—one continued private school while the other pursued a very different route through the public education system.
American Promise is an epic and groundbreaking documentary charged with the hope that every child can reach his or her full potential and contribute to a better future for our country. It calls into question commonly held assumptions about educational access and what factors really influence academic performance. Stephenson and Brewster deliver a rare, intimate, and emotional portrait of black middle-class family life, humanizing the unique journey of African-American boys as they face the real-life hurdles society poses for young men of color, inside and outside the classroom. [Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival]
The American Promise quick pitch:
Spanning 12 years in the lives of two families, American Promise provides a rare look into black middle class life while exploring the common hopes and hurdles of parents navigating their children’s educational journey.
The film begins in 1999, when my husband Joe and I turned our cameras on our son and his best friend, as the boys entered kindergarten at the prestigious Dalton School in New York City. Over the years, the boys struggle with stereotypes and identity, and ultimately take divergent paths on the road to graduation. Meanwhile, the parents wrestle with doubts and angst over their sons’ future, as they juggle their high expectations with the cultural and social obstacles the boys face.
Through the intimate experiences of our two families, the documentary reveals complicated truths about parenting, while challenging commonly held assumptions about educational access in the 21st century. Ultimately, it asks each of us: What is the American Promise?
…and why it's worth checking out at Sundance and beyond:
It will make you laugh and cry. It will take you on a long journey that has never been seen on film before. It will show you a side of the black experience that has rarely been exposed in commercial media since The Cosby Show. It will take you back to your first dance and then help you figure out how to (or how not to) parent. It will inspire you, shake you, and transcend all of your assumptions about black boys.
Exposing their children and their flaws:
Deciding how much we were willing to expose the boys, our friends and ourselves was really tough. Initially, our parental instinct was to avoid showing our flaws, we were reluctant to expose our vulnerabilities in front of the camera. However, over the years we realized that pushing ourselves to be transparent improved our parenting and our sons’ emotional development and made for a more a powerful story.
The second biggest challenge came in the editing room. Our film was 33 hours long in June, 6 hours in July, now it’s just over 2 hours and we’re still cutting. It’s been an agonizing process.
Insight on the trailer:
With the trailer we want audiences to get a taste of the longitudinal nature and scope of the film. In a matter of minutes we see the boys grow up before our eyes and get glimpses of the challenges they face along the way.