American Promise Documents Education and Equality

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Jon Stuyvesant
Idris Brewster and his mother, Michèle Stephenson, in the documentary "American Promise."

The documentary, American Promise, which won a special jury prize at Sundance, follows two African Americans from Brooklyn, from the time they enter kindergarten at the Dalton School, a prestigious private institution in Manhattan till they graduate from high school. The filmmakers, Joe Brewster, a psychiatrist, and Michèle Stephenson, a civil rights attorney, are fans of the 7 Up series, which checks in with a group of British people every seven years, from the time they're children. They originally wanted to follow more kids in American Promise, but all of them dropped out except for the filmmakers' son, Idris, and his best friend Seun.

"Our intention when we picked the school was to protect our son from implicit bias and low expectations we felt existed in the public schools of New York City," Stephenson, in town with Brewster for a screening of the movie, said. "So we thought that by him having individualized attention, small class size, and rigorous expectations around academics, we could protect him from that."

Brewster adds that school officials had told them they were working on an environment that would reflect New York City. That didn't exactly happen. Idris and Seun were two of the three African American boys in a class of 90. The filmmakers say they saw implicit bias and stereotyping in how the boys were treated.

"Both he and Seun were requested to do a tutoring program at school," Stephenson said. "We and the boys did not realize that they were the only two boys in that grade taken aside to do that tutoring program, and it was visible to the rest of the grade. That has a negative racial impact."

While making the movie, the filmmakers talked with educational experts about implicit bias and stereotyping along with the educational gap and how parents can best advocate for their children. They decided not to use the expert interviews in the film, but they will be in a book, Promises Kept, coming out in January.

"We wanted people to experience the moment, experience the stories, and not necessarily remove themselves from the intimacy in the film with expert perspectives," Stephenson said.

In the film, Seun and his family decide he will leave Dalton and attend Benjamin Banneker, a predominantly African American public high school in Brooklyn. Brewster and Stephenson say they also looked at taking Idris out of Dalton, which didn't make the film. After talking with their son, they decided to keep him at the school, believing that it would prepare him for college and that his experience there would change as the school promised to bring in more students of color from outside Manhattan. And it did change, they say.

"That group of black and Latino kids went from four or five in the eighth grade to 20 or so in high school," Brewster said.

In the end, a lot of the footage used in American Promise came from high school, Brewster says. Going through the 800 hours of film they had at the end of the 13 years, they looked for major events such as graduations and term papers at first. But then they realized that wasn't working.

"If we took any slice of life and sat there with a camera, we had footage on almost any given day that was more compelling," Brewster said.

Stephenson says that turning the camera on themselves was difficult at times, but they felt by opening themselves up, that would make other families feel less alone.

"People talk about how we're exposing ourselves, but we feel there's a power to that," she said. "Certain things we experience as parents, others are experiencing it too, and it breaks down the isolation. I think that helps us become better advocates for our children."

Brewster agrees that parents feeling bad about the struggles they encounter just holds them back.

"These guys are swans being raised in a world of full of ducks. We're hopeful, and we believe an awareness of the problem and acceptance that it exists is a big part of the solution," he said. "When we had a core group of parents who came together and spoke about these issues, it made it easier for us to get through it, and we were not ashamed. That's part of the reason we made the film because we believe that the shame is making it worse."

In American Promise, while watching Obama on TV, Brewster tells his son, he doesn't have to be president, but he hopes he will be productive and happy. That's something his father, a preacher who admired civil rights, might have told him, he says - and something that Stephenson's father, a Haitian immigrant, might have told her as well. Making the film feels productive, he says.

"Not that we're changing the world, but we're just putting a little to the cause and maybe contributing to the tipping point," Brewster said. "That's rewarding because at the end of the day when we're long gone, we just want to be contributors."

Check out the American Promise trailer:

American Promise opens at the Roxie Theater, 3117 16th Street, on Friday, Nov. 15.

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