In the final minutes of the documentary “American Promise,” winner of the Special Jury Prize at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, high school student Idris Brewster checks his University of California, Berkeley application, only to find out that he has not been accepted. Idris and I both applied to college the same year, we both struggled with exams and we both navigated through what may be one of the toughest periods of our lives. Still, the pressure Idris faced throughout his schooling was another level of intense.
Premieres on PBS tonight, Monday, February 3rd at 10pm, via the doc series “POV,” “American Promise” is a compelling and sometimes devastating film that follows African-American students Idris and Seun Summers through 13 years of their lives — their school lives. Directed by Idris’ parents, Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson, the film begins with the kids entering The Dalton School, one of the most prestigious private schools in the country, and ends with an important question: Was it all worth it?
The Dalton School, in an effort to promote a somewhat lackluster but nevertheless important diversity program, invites the two highly intelligent boys to join the school. In one of the first scenes, we see the boys’ preschool teacher crack open an egg, releasing a bloody, premature chick. It’s funny I guess, watching a throng of kids react to their teacher casually explain that they need to put the newborn chick into an incubator. Funny, but horrifying. Did you know what an incubator was when you were five?
Idris and Seun are the premature chicks at Dalton. Although mostly accepted by their peers and teachers, they seem to be moving along slower than everyone else. Idris has behavioral issues, Seun can’t read at the proper level; both are eventually put into one of the school’s tutoring programs. And their parents? Well, they can’t exactly see where the problems lie.
Brewster and Stephenson expertly expose these clashes. Seun, who eventually leaves Dalton, finds better luck at another school, where kids look like him, a place where he is no longer “othered.” Meanwhile, Idris, in one of the documentary’s finest moments, wonders why he is more comfortable at Dalton than when playing basketball with kids from his neighborhood. The neighborhood kids make fun of the way he speaks and Idris admits that he sometimes speaks in “slang” just to fit in. And even though he has friends at Dalton and is invited to all the Bar and Bat Miztvah’s, no girl will dance with him. He can’t really catch a break in either of the two worlds.
In a bold and revealing move, Brewster and Stephenson, both Ivy-League educated, are careful to show the pressures they put on their son. But “American Promise” isn’t a victim film. While the documentary undoubtedly exposes the automatic disadvantage that kids who are not white are born into, it also sheds light on the consequences that accompany expectation. Both pairs of parents, Idris’s and Seun’s, know they can be overbearing. They know that their children are exhausted. But they expect the best from them because they want the best for them.
At the end of the film, after over a decade of documentation, both boys graduate high school and have a lot of life decisions ahead of them. They prevailed over their adversities and disadvantages and survived our twisted school system. Nevertheless, “American Promise” is smart not to answer the main question it poses — if, indeed, it was all worth it.