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What It's Really Like to Be a Black Student at an Elite Private School

A conversation with the makers of the new documentary, 'American Promise.'

Photo Credit: Michele Stephenson


How do race and class affect education in the United States? That’s the question at the heart of American Promise, a documentary that follows two African American boys from their middle-class Brooklyn neighborhood to the prestigious Dalton School, one of Manhattan’s top-tier private academies.

The film, which won a special jury prize at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, spans a 13-year period, tracking the boys from kindergarten to their graduation from high school. The filmmakers—psychologist Joe Brewster and his wife, Michèle Stephenson, a civil rights attorney—are the parents of Idris, one of the two boys whose journeys are the backbone of this narrative. For over a decade they turned the camera on their own family—and Idris’ friend, Seun’s—to document the challenges the boys and their parents faced as African Americans in an elite institution, as well as the misperceptions and stereotypes that dogged them. Officials at Dalton had promised that the school would mirror the racial makeup of New York City, but that didn’t happen during their time there, and the boys regularly felt targeted and misunderstood. Eventually, Seun would leave Dalton for Benjamin Banneker High School, a predominantly African-American public school in Brooklyn, while Idris remained at Dalton. Both boys started college in 2012.

Brewster and Stephenson have a book coming out early next year called Promises Kept, about what their journey with Idris taught them about education, the achievement gap, and how parents can best advocate for their children. The couple met with AlterNet recently in San Francisco to talk about the importance of parental support, the bias they encountered (much of it well meaning), and how they made a story out of 800 hours of film.

Emily Wilson: In American Promise, we see scenes of your two families and the boys at school, but there are no education experts on film. Why did you decide not to include them in the movie?

Michèle Stephenson: As filmmakers, the films we like the most are always direct cinema driven: they unfold like a narrative film unfolds. We wanted to push the envelope around that and we wanted people to experience the moment, experience the stories, and not necessarily remove themselves from the intimacy in the film with expert perspectives. This is something we came to pursue as the years went on, because we did interview experts along the way. But we quickly saw it’s very hard to integrate [those interviews] into the kind of story we wanted to have unfold.

We have used those expert interviews—they’re now married to our website, so there’s an expert perspective available on some scenes. That’s what’s nice about being documentary filmmakers now—you can really plumb that material and use it on multiple platforms.

Joe Brewster: We ended up speaking to 55 experts, and one of our experts asked us to write a book, Promises Kept. It unpacks what we learned and failed to learn, and what the experts are thinking about interventions that parents and teachers and the students themselves can put into place. We look at things like implicit bias, learning challenges, code switching, diet, exercise, learning challenges. Even though those interviews didn’t ultimately fit [the film], we were able to repurpose and use them in another arena.

MS: The book picks up where the conversation leaves off, digging down into potential solutions and giving parents more information so they can become better advocates for their children.

EW: What did you think was the most important thing you learned from the experts?

MS: While we know that the social and emotional [aspects of schooling] are important, what I came to realize is that not only are they important, they’re crucial to academic success. Another element we delve into in the book that’s touched on throughout the film is how parenting styles can have an effect on children and their sense of self and resiliency as they face obstacles.