‘American Promise’ provokes discussion about race, class and gender in education

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Author: Haley Gray

Inspired by Michael Apted’s 7 Up series, lawyer turned film-maker Michele Stephenson and her husband Joe Brewster began the project of documenting their son fourteen years ago. Their efforts culminated in the documentary “American Promise.” The film follows two African-American boys – Occidental sophomore Idris Brewster and his best friend, Seun Summers – from kindergarten through high school. With astonishing intimacy, the film shows the boys’ trials and travails as they come of age, apply to college and face the extra challenge of being minority students in a predominantly white, privileged school – the prestigious Dalton School in New York City.

In town for the film’s Los Angeles premier Saturday, the couple visited Occidental last Wednesday for a special screening and question and answer session.

Despite being crammed into Choi Auditorium with about one hundred fellow students, faculty members and Angelinos come to see the new film, watching “American Promise” at first felt more like kicking back in the Brewster-Stephenson home for some home videos than getting a sneak-peak of a celebrated new documentary days before its Los Angeles premier. The grainy images, jerky camera movements and sporadic breaking of the fourth wall establishes a charming familiarity.

Students and community members pack Choi Auditorium
Photos by Ella Fornari

The filmmakers’ steadfast commitment to improving their project is in itself a tremendous feat. The evolution of their technique is conspicuous: homespun footage of the school-aged boys giggling in the back of a station wagon gives way to breathtaking, light-soaked shots of an ostensibly circumspect Seun, now as tall as his father, navigating his commute through crammed New York City streets.

If “American Promise” wins the hearts of the audience early on with the boys’ irresistible baby-toothed smiles and whimsical banter, it makes the intimate approach to documenting their later struggles all the more painful.

“The notions of privacy and what we can reveal and what we cannot reveal have shifted … I think there is a strength to us exposing our vulnerabilities: It allows others to feel more comfortable about sharing their stories,” Stephenson said of her technique.

It is, indeed, an asset. In perhaps the most heart-wrenching moment of shared vulnerability, a teenaged Idris, flabbergasted as to how to successfully ask a girl to dance with him, looks (presumably) to his parent behind the camera and asks if it would be better to be white.

While “American Promise” is an artistic achievement in that it affords a remarkable look into the human experience, this is not the core contribution of the film. “American Promise” is in its essence a discussion of the inter-related issues of race, class and gender in education. Its greatest triumph is in prodding viewers to consider the achievement gap between black male students and other students.

“Most people think it’s a film about Dalton,” Brewster said during the question and answer session. “It’s really a film about America.”

Idris, whose personal high school struggles are the platform through which this comment about America is made, handles the press and attention with a remarkably indifferent composure. He embraces the conversation his parents have spurred.

“I was talking with some of my friends last night – they were talking about how they related to [“American Promise”]. It wasn’t just black kids. A lot of my classmates, people my age, have a lot to say on it,” Idris said in an interview with The Occidental Weekly.

In as much as the film has prompted a critical look at issues of race, class and gender in education, its work is yet unfinished – and the Brewster-Stephenson duo are passing the baton to their audience.

“Sure, we worry about conscious racism, but that has been largely disavowed – particularly by [current college students’] generation,” Brewster said.It’s the unconscious perceptions that linger. They take a deeper level of understanding to see how they impact our lives – gender perceptions, race perceptions and class perceptions – you can’t see them work unless you stop and discuss them in a meaningful way. That is the next frontier.”

 

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