In American Promise, Brooklyn filmmakers Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson follow their son, Idris, and his best friend, Seun, from kindergarten through high school graduation. The goal is to document the lives of two African-American boys as they pass through Manhattan’s tony Dalton School, where they are a distinct minority. The doc’s intimacy, combined with its mammoth time investment (digital video has improved a lot since 1999), inevitably yields provocative results. There’s no other art form that can capture growth in this way, and like the Up documentaries, American Promise aims to capture the disjunction between where these kids start and where they go. There are saddening moments, such as Idris visiting Stanford and deciding it’s the school for him (“How can they reject me?”), that seem fully worthy of the film’s universalizing title.
Along the way, the directors’ ideas about the black male achievement gap are both supported and confounded, in part because individuals are necessarily too complex to serve as sociological test cases. Seun has dyslexia; Idris suffers from ADHD that isn’t diagnosed until 10th grade. As in Hoop Dreams, the boys’ paths diverge: Seun, struggling academically, eventually moves over to Brooklyn’s Benjamin Banneker Academy, where he has an easier time settling in. (In a more-than-slightly loaded point, the film even proposes that diversity doesn’t necessarily aid education.) The most startling scenes are offhand: It’s astounding to see the kids profiled by cab drivers even as the cameras run, and there’s a complicated dynamic as Idris’ Dalton class discusses Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.
Still, Hoop Dreams would have been markedly different if the directors had been the parents or close friends of their subjects, and American Promise is marred by a certain coyness in its presentation. At one point, a sudden death occurs, and Brewster and Stephenson avoid revealing the cause, presumably out of privacy concerns. But such omissions and other instances of suspicious perspective—when Seun gets a tongue piercing, he’s asked if his mother knows—only call attention to Stephenson and Brewster’s conflicting motives as filmmakers and guardians. The proximity to these kids can be an advantage when it comes to, say, filming Idris instant-messaging with the girl he likes, but to the extent that American Promise means to put forth a larger message, it’s more problematic. Ultimately, American Promise seems split between a personal perspective and a broader one. It’s a bold experiment that’s also a textbook case of filmmakers being too close to their material.