Updated Fri, Jan 17, 2014 10:20 am
Monday, February 3 • 10 p.m.
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’s 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.”
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. 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 in the neighborhood, 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.
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.