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POV's "American Promise," Airing on PBS in 2013, Is a Rare and Compelling Exploration of Race, Class and Opportunity in America

   

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Two African-American Boys Enter a Prestigious Private School and Their Families Confront the Opportunities and Frustrations Presented by the Changing Face of Success in America

A Co-production of Rada Film Group with ITVS and POV's Diverse Voices Project, Which Receive Funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting; Film Is Part of American Graduate: Let's Make It Happen

"American Promise provides an outstanding, honest portrayal of the complexities involved in steering black boys to success where cultural barriers and environmental obstacles still remain."
— Alvin F. Poussaint, MD, Professor of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School

American Promise is an intimate and provocative account, recorded over 12 years, of the experiences of two middle-class African-American boys who entered a very prestigious--and historically white--private school on Manhattan's Upper East Side. The Dalton School had made a commitment to recruit students of color, and five-year-old best friends Idris Brewster and Oluwaseun (Seun) Summers of Brooklyn were two of the gifted children who were admitted. The boys were placed in a demanding environment that provided new opportunities and challenges, if little reflection of their cultural identities.

Idris' parents, Joe, a Harvard- and Stanford-trained psychiatrist, and Michèle, a Columbia Law School graduate and filmmaker, decided to film the boys' progress starting in 1999. They and members of the large Summers family soon found themselves struggling not only with kids' typical growing pains and the kinds of racial issues one might expect, but also with surprising class, gender and generational gaps. American Promise, which traces the boys' journey from kindergarten through high school graduation, finds the greatest challenge for the families--and perhaps the country--is to close the black male educational achievement gap, which has been called "the civil rights crusade of the 21st century."

Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson's American Promise, an Official Selection of the 2013 Sundance Film Festival (where the filmmakers will launch a national public-awareness campaign), has its national broadcast premiere in 2013 (date to be announced) during the 26th season of the award-winning POV (Point of View) series on PBS. American television's longest-running independent documentary series, POV is the winner of a Special Emmy for Excellence in Television Documentary Filmmaking and two International Documentary Association Awards for Continuing Series.

The Dalton School, which provides classes from kindergarten through high school, is a launching pad for success, but also a high-pressure learning environment for all its students. Joe and Michèle, along with Seun's parents, Tony, a systems engineer for CBS, and Stacey, a nursing care manager for elder health, have worked hard to build their careers despite early disadvantages and are united in their drive to have their sons succeed at school and in life. But there are differences in outlook. Michèle, with Latino/Haitian roots, has some hesitation about sending Idris to private school, where she is afraid he will lose touch with his heritage, while Stacey, who hails from Trinidad, wants Seun to learn something she admits she hasn't--how to be comfortable around white people. While both fathers have high expectations for their sons, Joe is particularly demanding, while Tony tends to be more forgiving of Seun's ups and downs.

Idris and Seun are bright, playful boys. Idris is outgoing, while Seun is a bit shy. At school, the boys begin to see the differences between themselves and their classmates through youthful eyes. The very young Seun is found trying to brush the color out of his gums because, as he explains, some people say that "black is ugly." Idris, an enthusiastic basketball player at school and on neighborhood courts, finds that the way he is comfortable speaking at home and in school is mocked by other black kids as "talking white." As puberty looms, Idris feels a distinct disadvantage when he is turned down for dates and suspects that race must be the reason. He asks his parents an innocent, heartbreaking question: "Isn't it better if I were white?" Along with getting good (and not so good) grades, both boys begin to have emotional and academic problems that confound parents and teachers alike.

Seun's father, Tony, sheds a humorous light on the situation when he recalls being the only black kid in an all-white class. When the class learned the story of Harriet Tubman, the students turned around and looked at him in unison. At a meeting, the African-American parents of Dalton sixth graders find that their boys are being tracked into special tutoring programs, which may, inadvertently, reinforce some of the root causes of the black male achievement gap.

It soon becomes clear that the situation with Idris, Seun and the others is not as straightforward as simply reflecting the disparities between blacks and whites in America. African-American girls at Dalton and in similar educational settings regularly outperform their male peers, a gender disparity that baffles parents and teachers. Certainly the boys spend a lot of energy on sports, upon which their parents place great emphasis. Idris, nursing dreams of a basketball career --improbable, given his modest height -- experiences wins and losses on the school court. Seun is diagnosed with dyslexia and Idris with ADHD, conditions that are widespread among American children and adolescents of all backgrounds.

Both boys struggle with the weight of parental and school expectations, as any kid would, though for Idris and Seun, the weight might be even heavier. American Promise is especially revelatory in showing how the fight to succeed hits home in these two black families. The parents are often frustrated by what they see as their sons' relative lack of drive, compared to their own experiences.

The boys' paths then diverge. Upon graduating middle school, Seun leaves Dalton to attend the mostly black Benjamin Banneker Academy, a public high school in Brooklyn, where he thrives, traveling to Benin, West Africa, with his school's Africa Tours Club and setting his sights on a career in graphic design (at first to his parents' consternation). Idris stays at Dalton through high school, but is disappointed when he doesn't get into Stanford, his dad's alma mater. Now dating a girl he adores, he is accepted into Occidental College in California and exuberantly comes to see that what seemed a setback is just another challenge to overcome. Even Joe, the Stanford and Harvard graduate who admits that he has at times been too hard on Idris, accepts that there are roads to success that don't run straight through the Ivy League. Seun gets into the State University of New York, Fredonia, where he will study graphic arts, and his parents, too, realize there are many paths to success and happiness.

The ins and outs of familial relationships, as parents push for success and boys struggle to find their own identities, plus the challenges and tragedies that life brings, such as Stacey's colon cancer and the accidental death of Seun's beloved younger brother, form much of the drama of American Promise. At stake, beyond the challenges of being white or black in America, is the meaning of success in our country.

"All American families want to give their children the opportunity to succeed. But the truth is, opportunity is just the first step, particularly for families raising black boys," says co-director and co-producer Michèle Stephenson. "We hope American Promise shines a light on these issues."

"Our goal is to empower boys, their parents and educators to pursue educational opportunities, especially to help close the black male achievement gap," adds her husband and filmmaking partner, Joe Brewster.

American Promise is a co-production of Rada Film Group, ITVS and POV's Diverse Voices Project. ITVS and the Diverse Voices Project receive funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). The film is part of American Graduate: Let's Make It Happen, a national public media initiative made possible by CPB to identify and implement solutions to the dropout crisis and help parents and teachers keep students on the path to a successful future.

The American Promise Campaign
In partnership with trusted organizations around the country, the American Promise team will launch a national campaign to mobilize young people, families and educators to identify ways that Americans can better support black boys' social and emotional needs and encourage people to consider the role they play in advancing success for all children. This endeavor will be supported by a set of strategic tools in 2013 and 2014: a special campaign with Big Brothers Big Sisters' Mentoring Brothers in Action program beginning at Sundance in January 2013; a companion book published to coincide with the POV broadcast; guided local parent-student support groups; a mobile app that will regularly provide tips for parents; and more.

Companion Book
Spiegel & Grau will publish AMERICAN PROMISE, by Joe Brewster, Michèle Stephenson and acclaimed author Hilary Beard, to coincide with the airing of the PBS documentary. A compelling parents' story, a groundbreaking practical guide and an urgent call-to-arms, this is the essential book for parents, caregivers, educators and others concerned about the fate of black boys in America. AMERICAN PROMISE weaves Michèle and Joe's story together with the practical, and often provocative, lessons they learned along the way, from their own experiences and from innovative new research. Spiegel & Grau will support the book with national media outreach and marketing campaigns across multiple platforms.

Credits:
Co-directors/Co-producers: Joe Brewster, Michèle Stephenson
Editors: Erin Casper, Mary Manhardt, Andrew Siwoff
Directors of Photography: Errol Webber, Jr., Alfredo Alcantara, Margaret Byrne, Jon Stuyvesant
Original Score: Miriam Cutler
Co-executive Producer: Dan Cogan

Running Time: 2:15:57

POV Series Credits:
Executive Producer: Simon Kilmurry
Co-Executive Producer: Cynthia López
VP, Programming and Production: Chris White
Coordinating Producer: Andrew Catauro

Festivals:

  • World Premiere, Official Selection, Documentary Competition, Sundance Film Festival, 2013

Independent Television Service funds, presents and promotes award-winning documentaries and dramas on public television, innovative new media projects on the Web, and the Emmy® Award-winning weekly series Independent Lens on Monday nights at 10 p.m. on PBS. Mandated by Congress in 1988 and funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, ITVS has brought more than 1,000 independently produced programs to date to American audiences. For more information about ITVS, visit itvs.org.

American Graduate: Let's Make it Happen is helping local communities identify and implement solutions to the high school dropout crisis. American Graduate demonstrates public media's commitment to education and its deep roots in every community it serves. Beyond providing programming that educates, informs and inspires, public radio and television stations--locally owned and operated--are an important resource in helping to address critical issues, such as the dropout rate.

In addition to national programming, more than 75 public radio and television stations have launched on-the-ground efforts working with community and at-risk youth to keep students on-track to high school graduation. More than 800 partnerships have been formed locally through American Graduate, and CPB is working with Alma and Colin Powell's America's Promise Alliance and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Produced by American Documentary, Inc. and beginning its 26th season on PBS in 2013, the award-winning POV is the longest-running showcase on American television to feature the work of today's best independent documentary filmmakers. POV has brought more than 325 acclaimed documentaries to millions nationwide. POV films have won every major film and broadcasting award, including 32 Emmys, 15 George Foster Peabody Awards, 10 Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards, three Academy Awards® and the Prix Italia. In 2012, POV achieved a new milestone, winning five News & Documentary Emmy Awards®. Since 1988, POV has pioneered the art of presentation and outreach using independent nonfiction media to build new communities in conversation about today's most pressing social issues. Visit www.pbs.org/pov.

Major funding for POV is provided by PBS, The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, New York State Council on the Arts, New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, the desJardins/Blachman Fund and public television viewers. Funding for POV's Diverse Voices Project is provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Special support provided by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. POV is presented by a consortium of public television stations, including KQED San Francisco, WGBH Boston and THIRTEEN in association with WNET.ORG.

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POV's Community Engagement and Education team works with educators, community organizations and PBS stations to present more than 600 free screenings every year. In addition, we distribute free discussion guides and standards-aligned lesson plans for each of our films. With our community partners, we inspire dialogue around the most important social issues of our time.

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