American Promise: Sundance Review

A moving document of what it means to be a minority in an exclusive, high-performing school.

This special jury prize-winning documentary follows two African American boys, who start out at New York's Dalton School, over 13 years.

PARK CITY -  Parents Joe Brewster and Michele Stephenson are more than hands-on parents, they’re camera-on parents.  Over a 13-year span they filmed their son Idris and his friend Olusawen’s school experience from kindergarten through high school.  A co-winner of a Special Jury Award here at Sundance, it’s a hard-edged and inspiring account on how African American males can attain academic success. 

In this ambitious project, two professionally eminent parents (psychiatrist Brewster and lawyer Stephenson), have compiled an incisive, ethnographic-style account of an educational odyssey. It begins as the boys are enrolled at the prestigious Dalton School in New York. They are the only two minority kids in the class. Overall,  American Promise shows the emotional toll that each boy endures, not only from the image that their privileged peers have of minority males but, accordingly, their own lack of confidence. 

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This massive undertaking, culled from more than 800 hours of footage, illuminates the mistakes, the challenges and the personal growth of not only the two boys, but of the parents as well.  It’s also a hard-eyed look at the system of education itself, its shortcomings and its strengths.

In this engrossing film, we see the pressure that each boy faces, including Idris’ endurance of strong parental pressure to succeed; in particular, his very driven mother is often impatient with his rigor, despairing that he does not possess the tenacity that she had as a child. The boy’s short attention span eventually leads to his being diagnosed with ADHD. 

Similarly, we learn that Oluwaseun is dyslexic, a contributing reason why he is falling behind academically at Dalton. Ultimately, he transfers to a Brooklyn public school where his artistic side is nurtured because he is in a more natural environment for his talents and dreams. His confidence buoyed, he takes up karate and pushes himself to become a black belt.

In its 13-year scope, American Promise shows the strength and potential that minority males possess, and how that may be successfully directed. In this inspiring reality, it’s a promise kept: Idris is now a freshman at Occidental College while Oluwaseun attends the State University of New York, Fredonia.   

Production Company: Rada Film Group

Director: Joe Brewster, Michele Stephenson

Directors of photography: Errol Webber, Jr., Alfredo Alcantara, Margaret Byrne, Jon Stuyvesant

Editors:  Erin Casper, Mary  Manhardt, Andrew Siwoff

No rating, 140 minutes.