Race relations have improved a lot over the two and half centuries since the brutalities depicted in Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave.” But the challenges faced in Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson’s diaristic documentary “American Promise” indicate that the struggle for equal rights and social justice is far from being resolved.
At first glance, Brewster and Stephenson, a husband-and-wife filmmaking team whose many credits include “Slaying Goliath” (2007), winner of the best documentary award at the 2008 American Black Film Festival, seem to have achieved much of the American dream. They have professional success, financial security, and family stability. To top it off, in 1999 their son Idris and his friend Seun Summers (who is also black) were accepted at New York’s prestigious Dalton School. The five-year-olds would enter the strenuous K-12 program, part of an attempt by the school to expand its minority representation.
Seeing an opportunity to explore the complex issues of family, race, and education over a period of 13 years, Brewster and Stephenson get out their cameras and start recording. The result is an extended home movie that is also a sociological experiment. It is an academic “Hoop Dreams,” a kind of reality TV that actually confronts such realities as inequality in educational opportunity and the ambivalent goals of the black middle class.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, “Dream” seems at times less about race than it is about families. Brewster and Stephenson are highly motivated and accomplished in their fields. Although they lament that the system’s unstated expectations of Idris’s success are unreasonably high because of his race, they aren’t giving him much of a break, either. They show with disarming honesty how they push their son to achievements that he might not be ready for, or even interested in. They relentlessly coach and criticize him for his failures and perceived indolence. What he wants doesn’t seem the highest priority; no wonder Idris at times seeks refuge in bed.
As for Seun, his parents also push him hard, and he has the additional challenges of family tragedies – illness, accidental death, and other traumas that eclipse getting a good grade in math. Seun also resents being a kind of social experiment, and he finally transfers, with palpable relief, to a public school with a high academic reputation and a predominantly black student body.
Though the family dynamics seen here are universal, the racial factor persists and seems at times insurmountable. It can pop up at any moment, always unexpected but never surprising, as when Idris and a bunch of African-American pals try to grab a cab late at night with little success, or when Idris, after years at Dalton, at last gets his first compliment about his physical appearance from a fellow student (she likes his eyebrows).
These families aren’t perfect. Brewster and Stephenson share their missteps and misunderstandings in raising Idris, but they persevere and learn and perhaps prevail. As indicated when Idris works as a volunteer for the Obama campaign, the reward for such a struggle can be as lofty as the White House. Though elusive and frustrating, the promise of America is no idle dream.
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.