Friends in the documentary community often urge me not to write negative reviews of films like American Promise. Actually, this is probably the best, most extreme example of what they mean. The film took 13 years to make, it’s a very personal project about the co-directors’ child, and of course it really means well, intending to be a source of empowerment for boys and an influence on changing the black male achievement gap, among other things. The real characters certainly don’t deserve for their lives to be linked to any criticisms, either. If I tell the world that American Promise is dull and unfocused and ultimately ineffective, there are a lot of feelings to be hurt.
Fortunately, while my immediate reaction to this doc was all three of those complaints, the passing of a few days has let it simmer well in my head.
Married filmmakers Joe Brewster and Michele Stephenson (who we see make their partnership legal in the film) began following their son Idris in 1999 as he was about to enter kindergarten at The Dalton School, one of the most prestigious private academies in Manhattan if not also the world. The significance is that he’s African American, one of only a few enrolled in the predominantly white institution.
His friend Seun is another of the school’s black minority. Almost too on the nose, at the start of their experience at Dalton, the kids are seen learning about where baby chickens come from and are graphically shown fertilized eggs at different stages of abortion to successful birth, an obvious metaphor related to the boys’ academic careers over the next 12 years.
Those years are chronicled in spurts by the directors, themselves appearing on screen much of the time while hired cameramen film the family. Seun and his parents and siblings are simultaneously filmed, too, and between the two households is a very candid look into the lives of these fortunate Brooklyn boys. There are tears, tantrums, tragedies, a lot of moments you’d imagine Idris and Seun would find embarrassing to see now that they’re college age.
But it’s constantly amazing how invisible the lens seems to be for them, not surprising maybe for the kids who’ve grown up with cameras always in their faces, but even the adults are far from guarded. In fact, sometimes the parents, filmmakers included, come off as quite unlikable. That’s not a criticism of them so much as it’s a recognition of their being genuine. There are some direct interviews, including those with Idris conducted by his mom or dad, and whenever Idris is hitting on girls, the idea that he’s starring in his own movie comes up. Otherwise, we’re mostly just peering at life through time.
American Promise invites some very obvious comparisons, most notably calling to mind Hoop Dreams. Ever so perfectly, the boys of this film were even born around the time of that classic documentary’s release. The main difference between them premise-wise is that Hoop Dreams dealt with the opportunity provided by the basketball talent of its two African American boys and American Promise focuses on an academic path toward success (though Idris does play the sport in high school). There’s also the Up series, which relates to the intervals of reacquaintance at different age markers over the years as well as the sociological interests of the film.
And then there’s Doug Block’s The Kids Grow Up. Similarly, Block had consistently filmed his daughter, while generally documenting his whole family, from the time she was a little girl through her departure to college. But his film, about that transition for both the child and the parents, is anchored in the present, using the older footage interspersed as if they are flashbacks. And in spite of linearity typically being the most accessible means of storytelling in film, The Kids Grow Up is far more engaging than Brewster and Stephenson’s doc. Same goes for Ross McElwee’s latest, Photographic Memory, which contemplates his son’s life from childhood to adulthood.
Of course, Block and McElwee had different intentions with their docs. American Promise, though often lacking in clear points or motives within each and every scene, is about where its two subjects’ lives lead thanks or not thanks to their advantageous school situation. There is no narration to tell us what we’re supposed to think of the paths and outcome. Many moments, while surely carefully picked from the reported 800 hours of footage shot in the dozen years, feel more random and banal than they really are. The fascinating thing about the project is that Brewster and Stephenson couldn’t know where it would lead, and they present everything chronologically so it plays with so much uncertainty where other filmmakers would choose to color it with hindsight perspective.
The fact that much of what ensues isn’t that surprising nor therefore all that interesting on the surface is kind of a letdown of a conclusion. And it makes for indeed a sluggish viewing experience. But it’s a conclusion that still speaks volumes about the notions of opportunity and privilege. Idris and Seun don’t turn out to be automatically set for life just because they go to Dalton, whether for their entire childhood or for only part. The boys’ success there and in life during and beyond is still dependent on the work they do, as well as the guidance and support they get from their parents. But it’s hard to tell if the boys’ race is still a big factor even with the chances they’re given, or if they’re more their own obstacles in some ways.
American Promise is a documentary that only really comes together in the end as we see where it all leads to, and even then it may take some time afterward to really think about it to come to your own conclusion. While watching it, I wrote a note that it was the dullest doc I’d ever seen. When it was over, I was still annoyed that it didn’t seem to say anything. I planned to give it only two stars. Days later, I’m still thinking about it, and though I won’t claim it to be an enjoyable film, it is one worth seeing and mulling over. You can see just how much my opinion has changed with the jump in star rating I give it down below.
Two things in particular have influenced my growing appreciation. One is the happenstance viewing of Linsanity (see my review), a doc about Jeremy Lin’s struggle to make it as a basketball pro given his Asian-American ethnicity. There’s a kinship in the two films’ more subtle portrayals of racism and racial-minded self-identification and of non-assimilation on the part of their subjects — the effect of ethnic others always being made to be reminded of their difference, which leads to the few black kids at Dalton apparently being only, or closest, friends with each other.
The second thing is my eventual notice of the doc’s tagline, “Opportunity Is Just the First Step,” which makes it more clear-cut that it’s a film about how going to Dalton isn’t enough on its own, which should make us think more about Brewster and Stephenson’s apparent affluence relative to, say, the stereotype of poor urban blacks and even the housing projects origins seen in Hoop Dreams. We also should consider more the parenting style of the filmmakers and of Seun’s mother and father, which definitely comes off as greatly affecting the kids, at different times positively and negatively.
American Promise doesn’t hold your hand as it reaches what it’s conveying. It’s a difficult doc that plays easy. And it will likely be seen by more people than saw Block and McElwee’s more direct films, as it turns out, and hopefully much of that audience gets it by the end, too. If you’re looking for a real character study, though, this isn’t it. With so many jumps forward in time from age 5 to 18, there’s not a lot of time to really get to know Idris and Seun — if anything you get to know the parents more. As a sociological study with them as not part of an experiment but an observed sample, it does what it’s supposed to do very well. It just doesn’t appear to be doing much at all for a long while.
American Promise screens at NYFF again this Thursday (Oct. 10) and opens theatrically October 18. POV will debut the film on TV on February 3, 2014.