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‘American Promise’: an unvarnished tale of two boys’ struggles with school

 
The trailer for “American Promise”

I need to admit to you that when I heard Michèle Stephenson, one of the documentarians behind “American Promise,” speak at an Education Writers Association conference last spring, both the journalist and the mother in me struggled.

Stephenson and her husband, Joe Brewster, spent 12 years training a camera on their son, Idris, and his best friend Seun (She-un) as the two middle-class African-American boys navigated — or tried and failed to navigate — an exclusive New York City prep school.

The journalist in me doubted the motives of a mother and father who set out to produce a film about their son, not to mention their ability — no matter how well intended — to make an honest one.

The mother in me questioned how they could stand to keep the cameras rolling as Idris and Seun confronted one harsh reality after another — including some pretty harsh criticism on the part of the filmmaker parents themselves.

Showings and discussions

The feature-length documentary that came out of that effort screens Tuesday and Wednesday nights at two locations in the Twin Cities. You need to line your stomach with steel and go see it, as well as a talk the following night about raising black boys to succeed.

Sponsored by TPT and AchieveMPLS, the events are free and open to the public. The film will be shown Tuesday at 6 p.m. at Breck School in Golden Valley, followed by a discussion with the filmmakers. It will be shown again Wednesday at 6 p.m. at Theatres at Mall of America, again followed by a discussion. On Thursday, the documentarians will talk about parenting at an EdTalk at 6 p.m. at Mason’s Restaurant and Barre in downtown Minneapolis.

Space is limited and advance registration is required for the Wednesday and Thursday events. Note that the film will not be shown at the Thursday talk.

Don’t go hoping for simple truths or neat prescriptions. “American Promise” tells a remarkably unvarnished yet intimate tale.

While the documentarians’ love for their boys is visible in their storytelling choices, they were willing to cast themselves and the well-intended but privileged educators they interact with literally in cold light.

Begins even before kindergarten

The film opens even before the boys’ first day of kindergarten, with their parents torn between enrolling them in New York City public schools where they are likely to be known and embraced or the Dalton School, which seems like the path to opportunity.

By age 9, Idris, who is possessed of an adult vocabulary and innocent affect, has been suspended. As he describes the experience he is seated in front of the family Christmas tree, impossibly calm and a little perplexed why shoving, which he knows is bad, merited such a response.

Things get worse quickly. Both boys find themselves referred out for one intervention after another, including a hugely uncomfortable episode when the school recommends them both — but no other students — for tutoring.

Throughout, Idris’ parents unsteadily walk a fine line between anger at the school and frustration with their son. Most parents will recognize the uncertainty and ambivalence with which the camera cuts back and forth between supremely confident teachers and counselors — who nonetheless seem tin-eared — and Idris.

In one scene, a Dalton administrator bemoans the “disconnect” “independent schools” have with African-American boys that they do not seem to have with girls.

Meanwhile, some of the more painful visual sequences show a physically developed Seun in middle school towering over his classmates. The bigger he gets, the bigger the consequences he struggles to stave off.

One wonders if the Dalton faculty has ever heard of stereotype threat — the well-documented phenomenon in which people’s performance plummets in the face of low expectations.

Some cringe-worthy parenting moments

Stephenson and Brewster have left in the moments where their if-anything-overinvolved parenting falls apart, giving way to cringe-worthy outbursts that doe-eyed Idris barely blinks at. When Idris tells the camera in eighth grade that it would be easier if he were white, Brewster responds by asking whether that is because it would be easier for him to get girls.

Most of the time when the educational crisis fronting black boys is discussed, poverty and segregation are part of the picture. Fingers are often pointed at the boys’ home lives, which in this narrative are invariably plagued by instability and a lack of parental involvement.

None of this is true for Idris and Seun. Seun’s mother takes a night shift so as to be available as his challenges demand more adult advocacy. When the boys are finally shown crying, it is at their middle-school graduation. Idris is staying on and Seun, having been “counseled out” of the prep school, heads to a public high school modeled on segregated schools common in the deep south decades ago.

As a movie, “American Promise” suffers somewhat from the lack of a clean narrative or the kinds of storytelling markers that tell viewers explicitly where blame and credit should accrue. But that is also its strength: Stephenson and Brewster were parents while the cameras were rolling, but documentarians when it came time to edit a dozen years of their lives into a film.

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