It’s heartbreaking to hear Idris talk about how he gets invited to so many of his classmates’ bar and bat mitzvahs, but how he never gets to dance at them. The girls, he says, always turn him down. And yes, it makes him “feel bad.”
“I don’t know why they say no,” he says softly. “I think if I was white, I’d be better off.
“Isn’t that true?” he asks, staring into the camera. “At this school?”
Perhaps even more heartbreaking is watching these bright boys struggle academically. And as they struggle, the second half of the film shifts focus. The camera spends less time in the classroom at Dalton and more time in the filmmakers’ Fort Greene home as they become increasingly frustrated with their son’s school performance.
The film’s initial tone of cautious optimism ratchets up to one of mounting desperation. Idris’ parents hire tutors, force him to study, berating him at times. And they meet with other black Dalton parents, who confess that they, too, are having trouble with their own black boys. One mother tells them her son entered Dalton “as an excellent student. And now he’s going down.”
“There’s a cultural disconnect between African-American boys and the independent schools,” says a Dalton official, adding that the African-American girls at Dalton don’t have such problems.
Why? There are no easy answers, and the filmmakers seem to step away from answering the questions that they pose in the first half of the film, as if throwing up their hands in despair as well. As a result, the film seems to lose focus in the second half, meandering around as the boys make their way to high school. At times, Seun’s story seems to be eclipsed by Idris’ story.
Still, despite its flaws, American Promise is worth a look. It’s also a brave film. Brewster and Stephenson are willing to put themselves on blast, exposing the frayed nerves of parents who are often at their wit’s end, frequently losing their tempers in their quest to do the best for the boy they love.
Teresa Wiltz is a journalist based in Washington, D.C.