American Promise: a real eye-opener
Hollywood by Choice
Gail Choice | 10/24/2013, midnight
“American Promise” is an honest and compelling look at the lives and education of two young African American male children over a 12-year-period, from kindergarten to high school graduation. This is the first time I’ve seen a documentary of this nature, and I found it fascinating and yes, a real eye-opener.
We first meet best friends Idris Brewster and Oluwaseun (Seun) Summers of Brooklyn as two cute little 5-year-old boys, laughing and talking about kissing girls. Right away, I noticed something about Idris. Although he was amazingly outspoken, smart and witty, it seemed he already had a defeated spirit, and I wanted to know why. And I looked at Seun and wondered how he would fair because of his hair, already as a young child he was singled out for looking different, but I also noticed, even as a kid he was cool with it, and confident.
Both of these boys were about to enter Dalton School, a very prestigious private facility that had made a commitment to recruit ethnic students. And because these boys were gifted in their own right, they were accepted.
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. This was a very brave thing to do, a documentary with ‘great expectations’ on the part of these two little boys.
The cameras rolled for the next 12 years. The first thing you get drawn into is how the children are doing academically and socially at the predominately White school and the parents’ reactions.
My heart sank when Seun’s mom said she saw him brushing his gums really hard because his were black and gums should be pink like the White kids.
Idris’ parents surprised me the most. I don’t know if they were delusional or what, but they were surprised at how their son was treated academically at the campus. After some time, they even met with other Black parents whose children attended the school to discuss the race issue and how officials were systematically holding Black boys back.
The sad part is the documentary demonstrates that school administrations continue to put ‘learning disorder’ stickers on Black kids, especially Black males. “American Promise” zeroes in on this issue, but as you keep watching, and you will, you’ll see how family life and parents impact both of the boys.
I thought Idris’ father Joe, one of the producers of the film, was cold and arrogant. I didn’t like the way he spoke to or treated his son. Joe is from that school of you ‘vilify,’ not ‘edify’ an individual you’re trying to help. He constantly puts Idris down, and in my opinion, makes him feel worthless. Hence, I now understand that defeated characteristic in Idris.
As a little boy, Idris dreamed of playing professional basketball. He was on the Dalton team, but he was never shown playing in a game, just sitting on the bench.
Joe told Idris he was lazy, ironically from the time he was a little boy and well into his teens. As the youngster got older you could see the anger and frustration in his eyes.
Seun’s parents, Tony, a systems engineer for CBS, and Stacey, a nursing care manager for elder health, seemed a little more grounded in the things of family life. They were deeply concerned when Seun’s grades began falling, and made sure he did his homework. They could see he was trying, but according to Dalton, he wasn’t trying hard enough.
I began to worry about Seun, yes … worry. I mean, you’re watching these boys grow up and with all your heart you want them to buck the odds, deal with racism and take their rightful place in the world. Anyway, when he got his tongue pierced I said ‘oh, Lord.’ But it turns out that Seun would have many major life situations to overcome, from leaving Dalton to serious illness and even death in the family.
“American Promise” is a captivating, painfully honest must-see documentary. When all is said and done, it stands out as a very loving portrait of two boys who managed to beat the odds, and the parents who are willing to go the distance with them.