This film could have been titled “There Will Be Beef.”
An extraordinary documentary about race, family and education that's at once epic and intimate, "American Promise" took 14 years to complete since its premise is to follow two boys from kindergarten through high school. Actually, co-directors (and spouses) Joe Brewster and Michele Stephenson initially set out to film the scholastic careers of several children, including girls, but when all the subjects dropped out except for their own son, Idriss, and his best friend, Seun Summers, they were left with a film about two African-American boys entering a privileged, predominantly white academic environment – a focus that is essential to the film's provocative fascinations and cultural importance.
When we meet them at age five, in the late '90s, Idriss and Seun are as fortunate as they are cute. The eldest sons of stable and motivated black professional couples in Brooklyn, the boys are selected to attend Manhattan's tony, private Dalton School, an opportunity that evidently stems both from the school's new commitment to "diversity" (which involves trying to mirror the city's racial makeup) and their parents' desire to give their sons the best educations possible. Although "American Promise" wasn't the project's initial title, it perfectly captures the feeling of hope that both families evince as the boys embark on their big educational adventure.
But achievement doesn't follow opportunity as readily as one might hope. Both the lithe, delicate-featured Idriss and shy, husky Seun, in addition to being very likable kids, are smart and articulate, and their teachers and counselors seem to go out of their way to help them. Yet from early on, they seem unable to match or surpass their classroom peers, mostly kids from well-to-do white families. It's almost as if there's some invisible cultural barrier holding them back. Idriss, who slips into hip-hop patois when he goes out to play basketball with boys from the projects lest he be accused of "talking white," also perceives that he's punished at school more readily than the white kids. Is it because as a black kid he's expected to cause problems?
By middle school and the onset of adolescence, the challenges have multiplied and the parents' frustrations mounted accordingly. While Idriss and Seun seem to feel that their folks are pressuring them too relentlessly about schoolwork, the Brewsters and the Summerses say that they don't think they are being tough enough. After arriving late for a martial arts ceremony and being told by his dad that he's screwed up due to being given too much freedom, Seun turns to the camera and smirks, "They think waking up by yourself is freedom." Falling further behind academically toward the end of middle school, he leaves Dalton and moves over to Benjamin Banneker Academy, a distinguished Brooklyn public school with a mostly black student body.