For 13 years, filmmakers Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson turned the cameras on their son Idris Brewster and his best friend Seun Summers as they attended one of the most prestigious private schools in New York City. The result of editing more than 500 hours of footage into 135 minutes is the documentary, American Promise, a film that chronicles the difficulties two boys face as black males in a predominantly white institution.
The idea for the documentary started when Brewster and Stephenson’s son Idris was accepted into kindergarten at the Dalton School, an elite and predominantly white private school in Manhattan. The school had recently launched an initiative to recruit more students of color, hoping to make its student body more representative of the city’s racial diversity.
Dalton: The Early Years
In 1999, Michèle Stephenson didn’t want to take her son to the interview at Dalton. She said in the documentary, “I didn’t want Idris to be part of this elite school that didn’t give him any sense of grounding or self. A bunch of rich white kids disconnected from the world.”
After visiting Dalton, hearing about the school’s commitment to diversity, and comparing it to the other schools she visited, Stephenson gave in.
“It hit me hard. There was this incredible intellectual stimulation. It became something for me that I wish I’d gone through.”
Both Stephenson and Brewster speak highly about the perks of sending their son to Dalton. Idris was exposed daily to an intellectually stimulating environment, surrounded with teachers that were invested in critical learning.In one of the documentary’s opening scenes, Idris and his kindergarten classmates gather around a teacher while she demonstrates the difference between a fertilized and unfertilized egg. The teacher cracks open one of the eggs to reveal a pulsing, premature chick. After she tells the children to compare the chick’s stage of development to a chart on the wall, she places the baby in an incubator for the children to observe.
That demonstration was exactly the kind of emersive educational experience Joe Brewster wanted for Idris.
“Dalton will open doors for him for the rest of his life,” said Brewster, in one documentary scene.
He spoke highly of Dalton’s academic reputation in a phone interview with GPB.
“The level of academic achievement at Dalton is startling,” said Brewster. “For our son, he was fortunate to leave with those skills.
Idris was receiving a prestigious education, but he also experienced some social difficulties as one of the few black male students at Dalton.
One of those struggles was navigating his race while going back and forth between a predominantly white private school and his predominantly black neighborhood in Brooklyn.
In one scene, Idris recalls how some of the boys on his neighborhood basketball team make fun of the way he speaks.
“Sometimes I change my voice,” he said. “I don’t talk like I talk at Dalton since they make fun of me. They talk ‘slangish’ or something.”
Joe Brewster describes Idris’ experience as a “double whammy.”
“Our son had to learn to master a cultural competency in the Dalton environment, but also in Fort Greene in Harlem. It’s like learning multiple languages.”
In the film, Idris Brewster recalled a time when he used to change his voice when the kids on his Brooklyn basketball team made fun of him (Photo Credit: PBS)
No Support SystemIn late elementary school, both Idris and Seun started to struggle academically.
Seun started to struggle with reading when he was nine. He was later diagnosed with dyslexia.
In elementary school, Dalton administrators told Brewster and Stephenson that Idris has focusing problems and was hard to manage in school. Years later, he was diagnosed with ADHD. The more the boys struggled, the more their self-esteem started to wither.
In the film, Libby Hixson, Dalton’s middle school director said Seun’s peaceful and creative temperament didn’t mesh with the school’s rigorous and face paced academic environment.
“Here at Dalton, we’re high energy and we have a fast turnover. I don’t think it was frankly a good match for him.”
One school administrator said Idris and Seun’s difficulty was part of a pattern.
“There’s a cultural disconnect between independent schools and African-American boys, and we see a high rate of kids not being successful. The boys are not being successful and the question is ‘why’. What are we doing as a school that’s not supporting these guys?”
Seun Summers started to struggle with reading in elementary school. He was later diagnosed with dyslexia (Photo Credit: American Promise) Brewster agrees there was a gap at Dalton, but says that gap wasn't due to an overly rigorous academic environment. He said part of the problem was Dalton didn’t expect young black boys like Seun and Idris to succeed in the first place.
“The playing field is not level, “said Brewster over the phone. “We are tired of trying to justify and explain that there are a different set of expectations that these kids have to live with.”
For example, Dalton placed both Idris and Seun in tutoring program in the fourth grade. There were other fourth-graders struggling academically, but the directors reveal that Idris and Seun were the only two students in the entire grade who were placed in the program.
In one scene in the film, Stephenson voices her concern.
“I think there is a perception that these are young Black boys who need extra help because they’re not used to this kind of exposure.”
Over the phone, Stephenson said although the school suggested the boys enter the tutoring program to help the boys improve academically, administrators didn’t make any additional effort to find out why Idris and Seun were struggling.
“I think they were best intentioned. There was a level of intention that was there. But there was definitely a gap,” said Stephenson. Some teachers get it, but some didn’t. I think it has to do with their limited experiences with people and boys of color.”
In elementary school, Dalton reported that Idris had focusing problems. Idris was diagnosed with ADHD in high school. (Photo Credit: American Promise)
Challenging The SystemBoth Brewster and Stephenson say black children in environments like Dalton need parents to advocate for them in school, especially when it comes to asking questions and challenging institutions.
“Whenever we can set up a community of support, these boys tend to do better. What we want is for parents to talk amongst themselves. When parents begin to talk, they understand what these schools require,” said Brewster.
To encourage parents to communicate, the Brewsters didn’t stop at just making a documentary.
American Promise is a full blown transmedia project. Stephenson, who describes herself as an early adapter of web 2.0, wanted use technology to tell the American Promise story. In addition to the film, the directors developed an entire multimedia tool-kit which includes a website with teaching materials. A book and mobile app are set to release in 2014.
Stephenson said designing a transmedia experience became an organic extension of the documentary.
“For us, we wanted to know how we could meet the stakeholders where they were. We asked ‘What are the ways that we can extend the conversation’ ?”
Joe Brewster and Michele Stephenson at a screening of American Promise at Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center in New York (Photo Credit: Neilson Barnard/Getty Images North America) Extending the conversation included a country-wide tour as the documentary hits theaters. In almost every city, Stephenson and Brewster hold panel discussions after the film.
In the Atlanta screening of the American Promise, hosted by the Paidea Black Parents Association, the directors challenged parents in the audience to be both individual and group advocates for their black children, particularly in a predominantly environment where they may not be expected to succeed in the first place .
“This is where the conversations have to happen. In small groups and spaces,” Joe Brewster said to an audience of more than 80 people in the Landmark Theater in Midtown.
Their goal is to make parents of black students at predominantly white institutions comfortable getting together to discuss complicated issues of race and academic performance.
“Dalton has grown,” said Stephenson. “The boys came a long way in their life experiences. We like to think Dalton did too.”
American Promise will premiere on PBS’ American Experience on Feb. 3, 2014,