(The Root) — Anyone black who’s done time in prep school can appreciate the mixed bag of experiences it can bring: On the one hand, there’s the potential — the promise — of receiving a world-class education, one that makes the transition to the Ivy League practically painless. On the other hand, there’s the potential — the threat — of experiencing all kinds of feelings of alienation, the discomfort of being one of the “onlys,” the kid everyone turns to stare at whenever the history teacher brings up slavery.
Such is the premise of American Promise, a two-hour-plus documentary debuting on Friday in New York theaters. (The film opens nationwide over the next few weeks.) When their precocious 5-year-old son, Idris, was accepted into the Dalton School — one of New York’s most prestigious private schools — filmmakers Joe Brewster and Michele Stephenson, a middle-class black couple from Brooklyn, at first saw only promise.
“Dalton will open doors for him for the rest of his life,” says Brewster, a trained psychiatrist. “Expecting great things,” they turned the cameras on Idris and his best friend, Oluwaseun, or Seun, who was also accepted into Dalton. And they kept those cameras trained on the boys for the next 13 years. The result is a complex, though oft-times rambling, look at two black families trying to help their sons navigate a world of privilege, a world that often looks at them as the problem rather than the problem solver.
At first blush it would seem that the path of success for Idris and Seun would be relatively easy. They both hail from loving, two-parent, middle-class families (though Seun’s family seems to be a rung or two down the economic ladder from Idris’ family). They are both smart, funny, sweet. Dalton was in the midst of a concerted effort to bring in more students of color, and the boys were strong candidates.
But even in the allegedly postracial landscape of 21st-century America, race is never really post-anything. Stephenson worries what the boys will encounter going to school with “a bunch of rich white kids disconnected from the larger world,” and as it turns out, she’s right to worry.
Seun’s mother talks about when she discovered Seun in the bathroom, “trying to brush his teeth to get rid of the brown on his gums.” Idris is suspended because he was accused of hitting another kid, an accusation he vehemently denies — and then he’s suspended some more because the school thinks he’s lying. Outside the school, on the playground in their more black neighborhood, Idris is teased for sounding white. “Sometimes I change my voice,” he says, to fit in at home. At Dalton, he says, he never has to change his voice.
It’s an age-old dilemma for any integration baby straddling two universes. And class and relative privilege don’t seem to ameliorate that conflict very much at all.
The first half of the film does a good job of exploring that dynamic, following the boys everywhere, eavesdropping in on conversations in the family car, watching them in the classroom, on the playground, on the basketball court or in martial arts class. Idris seems to fit in easier than the dreadlocked Seun, but as the boys morph from cute kindergartners to pubescent middle schoolers, things get tougher for them, both academically and socially.