Filmmakers Take on the Black Male Achievement Gap in “American Promise”

January 29, 2014 at 12:26 pm

Joe Brewster, co-director and co-producer of POV’s documentary, “American Promise,” reveals the challenges and unexpected outcomes of documenting diversity in the film.

Since 1999, Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson have filmed over 800 hours of footage of their son, Idris, and his best friend Oluwaseun (Seun). The resulting documentary, “American Promise,” spans 12 years and documents the experiences of two middle-class, African-American boys as they navigate the opportunities and challenges of The Dalton School, a historically white private school on the Upper East Side.

“When we started, we didn’t think of it as epic. We thought of it as an opportunity to go somewhere where filmmakers haven’t gone before, the independent school. We thought it was an opportunity to document diversity,” Brewster, a Harvard- and Stanford-educated psychiatrist, told Rafael Pi Roman.

More than 14 years later, Brewster admits that enrolling Idris in Dalton didn’t result in all their goals: bypassing racism, or becoming a Rhodes scholar at the top of his class.

“I would say that it turned out OK.  And I think primarily because we had a better understanding of what diversity does…the potential of diversity. We have a better understanding over time of the obstacles that African-American boys face, which are different from other boys,” said Brewster.

Brewster and Stephenson’s recently published companion book, “Promises Kept: Raising Black Boys to Succeed in School and in Life – Lessons Learned from the 12-Year American Promise Project,” offers parenting and educational strategies, in hopes of answering some of the questions raised in the film. Read an excerpt from the introduction below.

American Promise premieres February 3, 2013 at 10PM on the POV (Point of View) series on PBS.



From the Book, PROMISES KEPT by Dr. Joe Brewster, Michele Stephenson & Hilary Beard. Copyright (c) 2013 by Joe Brewster, Michele Stephenson & Hilary Beard. Reprinted by arrangement Random House.  All rights reserved.