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Black Boys at Prep School: ‘American Promise’ Directors Discuss 13-Year Filmmaking Journey (Broadcast Debut Tonight On PBS)

Black Boys at Prep School: 'American Promise' Directors Discuss 13-Year Filmmaking Journey (Broadcast Debut Tonight On PBS)

It will make its broadcast TV debut on TONIGHT, February 3, 10:00 p.m.-12:00 a.m. ET, on PBS, as part of the network’s Black History Month programming. Here’s our interview with the filmmakers ahead of tonight’s premiere:

Sitting across from filmmakers Michele Stephenson and Joe Brewster is like being in the presence of the real-life Huxtables. They both laugh at this, but the similarities are undeniable. She worked as a lawyer (a human rights attorney), and he as a doctor (a Harvard-trained psychiatrist), before forming Rada Film Group in the 1990s. They both have high expectations for the family they’re raising in their Brooklyn brownstone, and to watch Brewster give a thoughtful speech to his oldest son Idris is like watching a scene pulled straight from Cliff and Theo on The Cosby Show

Brewster and Stephenson spent 13 years documenting the educational journey of Idris and his friend Seun Summers as the boys attended The Dalton School, an elite K-12 private school on New York’s Upper East Side. Their resulting feature documentary American Promise gives a candid and personal look at the challenges black boys and their families face in a society striving to define itself as “post-racial.” The film has already earned acclaim on the film festival circuit, winning a Special Jury prize at Sundance and considerable Oscar buzz. 

The filmmakers made time to discuss what it was like devoting over a decade of their lives to the film, and what their project means for black male achievement. 

JAI TIGGETT: You started filming this project with students of both sexes and multiple races, but eventually it became a film about black boys – the disparity in school performance between them and other students, and the pressures and inherent bias they face. Tell me about how that transition happened.

MICHELE STEPHENSON: It was really a blessing in disguise, because we had these three other girls involved, one African American girl who dropped out of the project quite early, one Latina and one White American girl who both eventually dropped out before we even hit middle school. And that really forced us to delve more deeply into the experiences of the two remaining families who happened to have African American boys. But it also happened at a key moment in their educational journey as we were hitting middle school, which is when the issues started to come up. We had two out of the three black boys in the whole grade having these issues, with a third black boy having similar issues. And then we started to talk to other families, and this was all happening as we were shooting and hadn’t yet framed our story. But also, seeing older African American boys being asked to leave [the school] had an impact on us and our sense of security, to have these boys who Idris connected with, who we find are wonderful but who are being asked to go, and then these other families not being willing to share because of their own pain. 

JOE BREWSTER: When those three people dropped out it wasn’t coincidental. It’s part of the same process. Why did all girls drop out? Why the girls who were predominantly Caucasian? And so yes, we see race everywhere, but race is not a bad thing. Just because we talk about it doesn’t mean we don’t celebrate it or we’re worried. We’re just aware. 

MS: So then, we started to look at the issue more in depth. We had a researcher working with us, Lauren Pabst, and we started to do more proposals for funding. As we were doing the research and looking at advisors to help we understood that there was this whole phenomenon going on which we were part of, and that it cut across class; that there were issues of perception, implicit bias, stereotype threat, about how these boys felt about performance. We reached out to Joe’s mentor Dr. Alvin Poussaint, a psychiatrist at Harvard, and Joe actually traveled with some footage up there to get his own commentary on what was going on. And that’s when we realized that what we were experiencing is bigger than us and that we were on to something, which was documenting these experiences in the moment. They weren’t going to be just talking heads. This could really provide greater information and connection to a wider audience.

JT: I’ve heard that you were inspired by Michael Apted’s Up series. But how difficult a decision was it for you to put yourselves on camera as well?

JB: We started out as filmmakers first. We were moved by Up, but there were other people who moved us just as much. 

MS: Marlon Riggs’ Black is… Black Ain’t.

JB: We were looking for a way to make multiple projects simultaneously, so this was a check-in project. And although we love Up, it doesn’t go deep emotionally. So ultimately by moving away from Up and moving towards someone like Marlon or even Hoop Dreams, where you have a deeper emotional dive into characters, we were able to make something that I think is a little more compelling than it would have been if we had just interviewed people every year or six months.

MS: We definitely wanted to use the Up framework as a kind of scaffolding. We were interested in exploring the fly on the wall and shooting things as they happened, but we realized that we couldn’t rely just on the two boys for the dramatic, compelling material and to be able to articulate certain things because of their age. That’s when we realized we needed to be more intensely involved, and the parents of Oluwaseun needed to be more intensely involved as well. So the need that we felt as filmmakers to push the story forward compelled us to turn the camera on ourselves.

JT: Tell me about introducing your son Idris to the project. At such a young age, did he accept the cameras filming him as an everyday thing? 

MS: We actually cut our first film when he was eight months old and he would be crawling next to the edit bay. That’s back when we were cutting and actually splicing 35mm film, and he would be playing with the filmstrips. So he’s had film around him all his life and it’s kind of second nature for him. 

JB: I would say that we as parents exercised our privilege to make the decision for him, and we did it with some thought as to how it would impact his life. We are believers in the power of intimacy, and by that I mean sharing complicated information and feelings. I’m a therapist. It’s what I do for living, and this film is no different. Audiences find it shocking sometimes, but when we develop that ability to be more complex in relation to affect and emotion and feelings, we really grow as a people and nation. 

We know that one of the reasons the film generates a lot of controversy is because of the level of sharing of pain. And sometimes that pain is so shocking that they lose sight of the fact that they just laughed for 30 minutes. But if you go back to Marlon Riggs, that’s what he did. He was on his deathbed making a film and sharing feelings about being black and human. And so that’s an amazing piece of work where there’s a lot of complexity. You can’t get it by shielding everyone around you. But the other issue is that when we are on stage with our son [at screenings], he’s doing the same thing now. He’s sharing complicated feelings. He’s a critical thinker but it’s not just critical thinking; it’s critically emotional.

JT: Idris is very open and vulnerable in the film. One thing we’ve experienced with the documentary series I produce, Little Brother, is that audiences always seem surprised to see young black males showing that level of vulnerability on screen.

JB: It’s profound. You want to make a film that goes to a world that people don’t know. But you realize they don’t know articulate black boys who are vulnerable. As a society we’re comfortable seeing African-Americans struggling in a working class environment, we’re comfortable with all of the other associated preconceptions.

JT: Even with the two of you, I say that you’re like the Huxtables, but a lot of people don’t believe in that image of a middle class black family having these types of experiences. Prep school, competition, social mobility. They see it as fiction. Was that a consideration going into this project, to affect perceptions of black middle class life?

JB: No, because you tend to try to hide that. We haven’t really gotten over the fact that we’re first-generation. We’re the first in our family to go to college, and so we are struggling with some of the same issues that our son struggles with in terms of belonging, being of multiple classes, multiple cultures. He calls it a twoness. And that’s what you’ll find often in black middle class families. We’re not coming from 20 generations of wealth, we’re coming from one generation back. And so we didn’t push it out there because initially we didn’t understand how powerful that was. But also from the point of view that we didn’t think the film was about us until we were knee-deep in it. 

You know, African-Americans of all sorts of economic classes watch more television than anybody else, and the theory as explained by a few is that it’s one of our ways of figuring out what’s going on around us. It’s an acclimation into this vantage point, into this larger world, but it’s not our world. It’s not an accurate depiction. So we understand that we are contributing to the building of a more complex gaze into the African-American community.

MS: We’ve gotten some pushback from certain funders or even partners seeing clips of the film and saying, “How is this going to be relevant to the constituency that I’m working with, which is working poor?” Our response has been, again, we watch white television and don’t ask how is that relevant. We feel that the film touches upon issues that cut across class, and by telling a good story you create connection that goes beyond whatever their particular socioeconomic status or life experience is. Hopefully that can propel the conversation on what can communities do with their work, or even just as parents. There are things that are universal about parenting that don’t have anything to do with class. But we got pushback and it’s interesting, because that question isn’t asked of white filmmakers going to the inner-city and depicting certain stories; somehow that’s safer or more relevant. How is it more relevant? And why does it have to be mutually exclusive? Why do all of our stories have to come from a certain perspective to be valid?

I’ve had people come up to me, young men, some of whom are mentees or part of the Big Brothers Big Sisters program and say, “I feel like you’re my mom.” They see the love, they see the nurturing, they see the expectations that are made and they see themselves through Idris and Seun and understand that a lot of this is about expressing and the need to be loved and supported.

JT: You’ve been making the movie for the majority of Seun and Idris’ lives. Has it been much of an adjustment for them, or you, now that filming is completed?

MS: Not really. When you look at what we’ve shot, it hasn’t been that impactful in terms of changing their lives. It speaks to the power of the film that people, after seeing it, have the impression that we had the cameras on 24/7. People think, “How could you be shooting your child 24/7 and be there, present, all the time?” But in reality we have 800 hours of footage over 13 years. When you look at the families, that comes out to about one hour per month. When you look at that in comparison to everything else that was left out or other aspects of our lives, I think it puts things in perspective that the camera was much less invasive than people have the impression of because of how we constructed the story.

JB: Now, it’s really the same amount of time spent on the project. For example, this summer Idris went to a leadership conference in Chicago. He spoke in front of Teach for America in Los Angeles. He’ll be at the University of Iowa talking to students there.

JT: So he’s now a sort of ambassador for the film across the country.

JB: I don’t think he’s championing the film as much as he’s championing the issue.

MS: And his experience. He facilitated one workshop with youth in Kentucky with excerpts from the film. We’ve developed a whole guide that’s a safe space for just youth to talk to each other and he and Seun facilitated the conversation. I think that they’ll continue to do that so long as it fits within their schedule, and they’ve embraced that.

JB: This film is about to explode, but it’s not exploding as a film in a cinema. What people don’t realize and what we didn’t realize is that the issues that we’re talking about have a tremendous valence with caretakers of black boys around the country. And we can feel it when we’re talking to audiences in Portland, Oakland, Sacramento, Austin, Miami. It’s not limited to Brooklyn or to New York or to private schools. We have 700 requests to screen. We can’t even keep up with the demand. And so what we’ve done, because it’s a long-term project, is spend time thinking about what we can offer parents. 

So we’ve written a book and it’s coming out January 14. And when we wrote the chapters and we would go present to the publishing houses we would have a crowd of parents who worked in the publishing houses who would ask questions. So we realized that, and I told this to Idris, I said I’m not sure we can afford not to make the film. At this point it’s really not about us. So if someone says you’re a bad parent or you lost it, so be it.

JT: You’ve had that reaction?

MS: We’ve gotten that, oh yeah.

JB: But we’re bringing some light to the issues that the boys face and validating what parents are saying. When a mother says to her son, “You’ve got to work harder because you’re black,” and he thinks, “Okay, what’s the evidence of that?” You see evidence every day. You see stop and frisk, you see Trayvon Martin, you see kids making a decision at the age of four that black is worse or angrier. So we want to validate that from a middle-class perspective, because many people say that if you’re middle-class you’re immune.

JT: So many documentaries about education point to societal problems and institutional change. But this project seems to really focus on what individuals can do, what parents can do to help their kids.

MS: We are totally in tune with the need for structural and institutional change. There’s no doubt that that has to occur. Greater investment in quality of the classroom, greater investment in validating teachers, things that happen on a policy level. But those things take years, they take consensus, they take a movement to support it and as parents and caregivers who are on the front lines with these boys we understand that we cannot wait for those changes. In the meantime there are things that we can do as individuals for the lives of the actual boys that we interact with.

JT: You must have learned a lot over these 13 years. What are some of the takeaways?

JB: We’re not experts, but we can kick some ass if we have to. You can enter that classroom multiple times a semester and that will have a huge impact on the trajectory of your kid. One father told me, “I walk into my son’s classroom on the first day and say ‘Hello, my name is Mr. X. This is my son Little Mr. X and he is here to learn.'” He says that when a teacher hears that they know they have to deal with him and that’s how he’s evaluating them, by “Is my son learning?”

Another thing that we know is that these boys are punished at school, they’re punished at home and they’re punished in the neighborhood, and anything that you can do to positively reinforce them has huge impact. That’s what we try to do and we’ve seen the results. There are concrete things that can happen to protect and to encourage these kids to develop educationally, morally, emotionally that we’ve become better aware of via the book, and we’re going to share that.

MS: It’s about sharing information with parents, but also with educators. Teachers have a positive role to play and it’s really about embracing and discussing the difficult issues around perceptions that we bring to the classroom, and engaging parents in a different way where there can be incremental day-to-day changes in our interactions with each other. But the first step is really having that information in hand, and I think that can even push the envelope further towards institutional change. 

JB: The one thing we have to acknowledge is that we didn’t create any of this. We fell into the film but there are other films that are dealing with similar issues. Some of these researchers like Joshua Aaronson and Claude Steele, they’ve been working on these issues for 25 years. Ron Ferguson, Alvin Poussaint, and it’s gone to a fever pitch. The Campaign for Black Male Achievement, there are 1,400 organizations around the country all working together to make a dent in this. So we came at the right time on the backs of the researchers and the parents.

JT: Tell me about the 800 hours of footage that you shot. What was the process for cutting that down and shaping the film?

MS: First of all, that material runs the gamut in terms of format. We started with the PD100 and ended up our last two years shooting with the 5D and 7D. So the formatting evolved and came of age along with the kids and ourselves. But in terms of the editing process, once we got more substantial funding in high school we started editing in increments. Some stuff was actually cut so that we could raise more money, important scenes that we saw that we could use as a calling card. But it wasn’t until two years before we finished the project that we hired an assistant editor to start cutting fat scenes for us. 

And then the last year we were lucky enough to have three editors on the team, Mary Manhardt as well as Aaron Casper and Andrew Siwoff. They basically used what was organized and laid out an initial cut of the film that was 32 hours. We said we wanted to use interviews as little as possible. We wanted to use all the possible scenes that could be made from the verite material because that was going to be the anchor for us, and then we would see where we would need narration and interviews. The task was one, to be no holds barred with regards to our characters. If we look bad, we look bad, just cut the scene anyway. We would make decisions on our character development later, but we wanted the strongest scenes possible. And so in May we sat down and watched those 32 hours, and then every couple of weeks from there we would check in and cut down as much as possible. 

JB: But we did have a theme when we started, that this film would be about parents wanting their sons to be perceived accurately. 

MS: We wanted to make sure their complexity shined through the material. That was part of the mandate and if it meant sacrificing us, sacrifice us. And that’s what Mary was able to provide for us. She said, “Listen, we can cut this but we have to have some kind of guiding theme so that we know what we’re trying to get at.” It had to be encapsulated in a thesis statement, which we had written on a postcard on the wall as a guide for us as we went along. So we would check in with a timeline every couple of weeks, sometimes more, but with a shorter piece in mind. 

JT: How did that affect you, to have to watch all these hours of footage of your family and make decisions about editing while you’re still shooting the film?

JB: The process was so painful at first when we watched it that we would stay up for a few days unable to sleep. It would range from, “Did I really say that to my son?” to “Oh my god, that dress, I can’t even get in it anymore.” It’s rough. From the physical to how you present yourself, to the way you speak. Our sentences would change after that. We stopped run-on sentences in our real life because they couldn’t cut it. 

MS: But by May we had that 32 hours of footage. We wanted to make the Sundance deadline and we were really lucky to have three editors able to work at the same time. That’s three years of work that we were able to condense into one. 

JB: We acknowledge that it’s uncommon. The money came from a number of sources. We worked on this film for free for many years, but then we got some support from ITVS, Ford Foundation, and MacArthur Foundation came in at the end and that allowed us to do this. Some people say whoa, three editors. We’ve had films where we couldn’t get one editor and we’re cutting in the middle of the night while reading the manual of Final Cut Pro. We realize it’s a privilege to work that way, but if you look at what it cost to make this film over a 13-year period, we did it with very little money. So we acknowledge and are grateful for the funding, but we know that the funding gap is significant for African American projects. 

JT: The film has done well to this point with very good reviews, the Sundance award, the theatrical premiere coming up, and now The Hollywood Reporter is listing it as a front runner for the Academy Award. 

JB: It’s exciting to get the recognition that we are really filmmakers, that we really have some control over the craft, and that the issue is important around the country and will actually stimulate conversation. That’s the only thing that it means for me. I remember someone telling us that the greatest fear is to be rejected, and one of our greatest hopes is to be accepted. So I’m sorry, I want to be accepted. I criticize America a lot in my work, but I want to be an American to be proud of. I want to be accepted. I want to be a part of solutions. 

JT: On the subject of what it means to be American, can you tell me about the title of the film? I understand it was originally titled The Dalton Experiment before it was called American Promise. To me, it brings to mind that issues affecting black boys are usually seen as black issues instead of American issues.

MS: Right, it’s about understanding that our experiences are part of the larger American experience. It’s also about interpreting what this promise means on different levels, whether it’s the promise that we make to our son to protect and provide for him, support him, provide opportunities. It’s the promise that this society makes to its families, and the promise that we hope the boys make to themselves. I just feel that the title has a symbolic strength that can be latched onto by anyone, and that’s what we hope this story does. By titling our experience within that American context, we break the barrier of any kind of differences or stereotypes that other people will come with about who our boys are. 

JB: I was in Paris many years ago and I saw this sign that said “United States.” And I saw a woman on the poster and it wasn’t the “America” that I knew. So I would really like, when you say “America,” that you see our sons and they’re fully integrated into whatever that means, and seen without fear. That’s what we’ve been promised, and I’d like for the promise to be kept. 


American Promise will make its broadcast TV debut tonight, February 3, on PBS, as part of the network’s Black History Month programming. For additional information on the film, visit its website HERE.

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