Imagine collecting 14 years of unflinching home movies, and turning it into a film for public viewing. That’s what filmmakers Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson did with “American Promise,” a new documentary premiering in Los Angeles on Friday. The film, ostensibly about the educational experiences of their son, Idris, and his friend Seun Summers as they navigate the elite Dalton School in New York City, is actually at its heart about what it means to grow up as a young black man.
Idris and Seun enter Dalton at a period when it’s trying to diversify its predominantly white student body. The boys receive a top-notch education and yet run into many of the same educational barriers that black students in less rarefied educational settings face. Seun and Idris are told that they’re disruptive and unruly in class, and over the years the perceptions of them affect their academic performance. When they’re middle school-aged, Dalton offers extra tutoring for the boys. Other parents at the school are spending tens of thousands of dollars—on top of the $25,000 annual tuition—for supplemental tutoring for their kids, and the tutoring is pitched by the school as extra support for the boys. But then they find out that Idris and Seun are the only two students pulled out for the after-school program. Dalton staff admit that black boys have a difficult time at the school, but stop short of hazarding a guess as to why that is.
The camera follows Idris and Seun in and outside the classroom as they piece together their understandings of themselves and their places in the world. The film captures their slow-motion awakening, the realizations washing over their faces bit by bit as they navigate classrooms, subways, family and social lives. Meanwhile Seun and Idris’s parents push their kids, sometimes unrelentingly, to get them to college. Let’s put it this way: Brewster and Stephenson are a special kind of brave for opening up their family life to others.
But Brewster and Stephenson’s message is clear. Addressing the educational crisis facing black students, and black boys in particular, will require first grappling with how the country sees black youth. Colorlines caught up with Idris Brewster, now in his second year in college in California, to chat about the film, his parents, and what didn’t make the final cut of the film.
Can you describe what it was like to watch the film for the first time? Did your family ever watch the footage through the years?
No, never. They would show me some clips of some stuff they put together or I’d be passing by and hear clips, but I didn’t get to watch much of it. And I wasn’t really trying to at the same time.
First off I was kind of shocked. I was surprised at how amazing the film was. Because it’s just weird having a film about yourself and your friend. I just didn’t even think that it could be turned into anything like what it came out to, but my parents did a great job.
What was it like to see your childhood from your parents’ perspective?
It was eye-opening but, I didn’t suddenly see [things anew] when I watched the movie. They’ve been drilling their perspective into my head since I was born, and in retrospect I did see what they were talking about. For example, that tutoring program. At the time I thought it was nothing. It was, “I need some help with my math, let me sign up for this tutoring program with Seun.” I wasn’t aware that we were the only two people who were a part of it. That’s one example of it, that in retrospect I realized.
What’d you realize?
It didn’t make me think about the situation any differently, it just opened my eyes as to what was going on and that race was an issue. Because when I was at Dalton, at least in my middle school years, I wasn’t aware that race was a problem. You see in the movie, they ask me, “Do you think race is an issue?” and I’m like, “No.” I was in 4th or 5th grade and I was like, “No, nothing’s wrong.” I didn’t think it was that big a factor until like high school, in 10th or 11th grade. In 11th grade I did notice it was a problem.
What did you start noticing?
I noticed that the cafeteria and lounge started to segregate. All the black kids were hanging out with all the black kids. I started becoming more sensitive to the jokes some of my white friends would say, but it never really bothered me. I just became more aware. I was taking more mental notes.
Are there big moments of your childhood or your educational experiences that didn’t make the final cut?
A big part of my life at Dalton was sports. It was what I was known for at the school at times. And it was what I felt I was best at. And there is a story behind that, in terms of being one of the few black kids on an all-white basketball team [at Dalton], and also playing outside of school. I was sometimes the lightest-skinned guy on the team and I got mocked for that. That was a story they didn’t cover, but they also did a whole other film on that.
There’s a scene where you’re playing basketball in these different settings and you’re figuring out code-switching for the first time. On its face the film is about education but it’s also very much about you figuring out survival skills as young black kid. Is there a line between the two? Where do they meet?
I don’t think there is a line. I think they could have covered the code-switching more. Because code-switching was something that every one of my black classmates at Dalton had to do. It was intertwined in our educational lives. Code-switching was our life. When we went home to Brooklyn, we were on the train, we would act different, we would transform into different people when we weren’t at Dalton.
You and Seun eventually take different paths. Do you ever wish you had left Dalton?
No. Even though middle school was a miserable experience for me, high school was an extremely positive experience. I got an education that was top-notch. I met a lot of lifelong friends because in high school a lot more students of color came into the school. And, yeah. I really liked the high school experience.
Is there anything you would say about larger social and political forces that also affect other black students’ educational lives?
I just have my own experience. My parents have done more of the research. I guess what I would have to say is: This movie made me aware the that the black achievement gap is a problem, that kids aren’t getting the support they need and also some aren’t being pushed to the level that they can go. My parents were supporting me throughout and I don’t think I would have gotten through school without them. Having their support is key. At the same time I know there’s not a simple solution to the problem and there’s a lot to be done.
Is there anything you’d say to the parents of other black boys out there?
I would tell them not to worry completely. I felt like my parents got extremely worried that I wouldn’t go where they wanted me to go educationally. They were patient with me and kept pushing despite some failures, but I got to a very good college and I’m still pushing. I guess I’d just say that failure is a part of the process.
Click americanpromise.org for more information and showtimes for “American Promise.” The film will play in eight cities through the fall. It opens in Los Angeles theaters on October 25.