When 13-year-old Idris Brewster, subject of the thought-provoking documentary “American Promise,” is invited to a classmate’s bat mitzvah, he says he hasn’t much interest. None of the girls ever want to dance with him, and he has a good idea why.
“I bet if I was white, I’d be better off,” he says plainly.
His parents, filmmakers Joe Brewster and Michele Stephenson, are sitting off camera. They let the moment land.
Such incidents occur often in the two-hour film, which follows Idris and his best friend Seun Summers for 13 years at The Dalton School, a prestigious college preparatory institution in Manhattan. The documentary premiered on PBS in February and is available to viewers on the PBS website until March 6, 2014. Then it goes on sale.
Since it made the rounds at last year’s film festivals (winning a jury prize at Sundance), American Promise has sparked a new round of conversation about black male educational achievement. The numbers are sobering. Black children are more likely to have ineffective teachers and fewer educational resources, which may partly explain why black males are also twice as likely to drop out.
Brewster and Stephenson said their motives were simple. “We were confident that [attending Dalton] would set them on a course for academic success and we wanted to capture it all on film,” they write in their filmmaker’s statement. “This personal experience pushed us to expose the impact of the unique social and emotional needs of black boys on their academic performance.”
Serving a dual role as parents and filmmakers, Idris’ parents demand nothing but excellence from him and their younger son, Miles. They have no trouble expressing their exasperation when Idris doesn’t live up to expectations. After a particularly rough semester, Idris’ parents develop a spreadsheet to better manage Idris’ time. “Every hour of the day is accounted for,” Joe says.
Life at Dalton, which sends 30 percent of its graduates to Ivy League colleges, challenges all of its students, but those problems are magnified for African-American males. Dalton administrators talk on camera about how often black boys falter at the school, but suggest few solutions. The pattern is evident with Idris and Seun. They start out in kindergarten with a thirst for knowledge, but by sixth grade things are souring.
Parents of other black boys at Dalton express discomfort with the changes they see in their sons. And they wonder whether the sacrifice is worth it. Tuition runs $25,000 and some parents spend an addition $30,000 per year on tutors. They ask how their sons can compete.
The pressure is palpable as the boys as grow into young men. Seun is diagnosed with dyslexia and his parents hire a tutor to help him keep up. But the demands increase even as Seun—very bright and capable, according to his teachers—falls further behind. He transfers to a public school where the student body is predominately African-American. He begins to feel more comfortable, and this seems reflected in his work.
Idris remains at Dalton, where he is pushed (by his parents and teachers) beyond his perceived limitations. As he matures, his struggles with identity become more apparent. He learns the art of “code switching” — changing language, tone and posture as his company changes.
Brewster and Stephenson put together a companion book, Promises Kept, which expands on the film and offers parents and educators with resources to help close the achievement gap.
“Essentially, how well students do is how well we do as a nation,” Stephenson said. “The two are interlinked and intertwined. If we really want to compete at a level that makes sense to maintain, not only our status but our community and our values in this country, we have to take care of all of our children.”