For co-directors Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson, their 13-years-in-the-making “American Promise” may have fulfilled every indie filmmaker’s American Dream. Since winning the Jury Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, the doc – which trails this upper-middle-class black couple’s own son Idris and his friend Seun as they learn to navigate the majority white world of NYC’s prestigious Dalton School – has nabbed prize after prize, including the top award at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, and most recently, at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival. It was there in Hot Springs that I finally got to catch the flick – and, as good luck would have it, moderate a Q&A via Skype with the Brooklyn duo. And since there’s rarely enough time post-screening to adequately address questions in depth, I asked the filmmaking couple for a repeat performance here at Global Comment. (“American Promise” will premiere on PBS in February – but if you simply can’t wait, go to www.americanpromise.org to request a screening near you.)
Lauren Wissot: You’ve cited Michael Apted’s “Up” series and “Hoop Dreams” as initial and ultimate inspirations, respectively. How many characters did you originally plan to follow, and why did you abandon the “Up” idea?
Joe Brewster: The “Up” series actually served as an inspiration to our filmmaking approach for this project. With that in mind, from the start our film was also slightly different in approach. Initially we kept true to the idea that we would follow a variety of children of different racial, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds from our son’s kindergarten class. Our intent was to chronicle how this diversity experiment he was embarking on at the elite college prep school was going to play out. However, our structural framework had always been to document the journey over a 13-year period – from kindergarten to graduation from high school. We also approached the process from a direct cinema observational lens, with very few talking heads. Our process ended up making the 13 years of shooting a more intense experience. But it also required that we be able to roll with the punches of life as they happened, and allow ourselves not to be obsessed with having too much control over the narrative. In short, we needed to be flexible. And we had to demonstrate that flexibility when the three girls in the documentary dropped out of our project by the fourth grade, for a variety of reasons. By middle school we were left with our son Idris and the other Brooklyn boy, Seun – two African-American boys and their families who were just starting to experience the particularities of what it means to be a black boy navigating the educational world.
LW: For me, the most surprising – and refreshing – thing about your film is the sheer honesty about race relations on display in front of the camera. From a white Dalton administrator admitting that African-American boys struggle at the school (whereas girls seem to adjust better) to Idris seriously wondering aloud, “Wouldn’t it be better if I were white?” (At Dalton, that is.) Did such straightforwardness take you by surprise? What did?
Michèle Stephenson: From the very beginning we encouraged the frankness and transparency of all those involved both on and off camera. It also is why we chose Dalton as a school. They were a school open to talking about delicate issues of race and diversity. But obviously that was not enough. Everything rolled from our initial setup, and the deeper transparency and exposure of vulnerability developed organically as we filmed through the year. Establishing trust with everyone involved was a priority throughout our entire production – both on and off camera. We started our educational journey with this willingness to go to these often-painful places, and encouraged our subjects to go there too. It was not easy. But we soon realized that the ability to share our vulnerability and to expose these feelings and issues are essential to both making a great film and supporting the healthy development of our child. Ultimately, the elements needed to make a strong observational film were the same tools we needed to impart to our son to help his self-esteem and experiences. It was crucial that we talk and self-reflect to understand what really defined our son versus what was being projected onto him. Also, by exposing our own insecurities, we can empower the audience to a positive reckoning with their own.
LW: What would you do differently if you could reshoot the film (and revisit your parenting choices)? Any big regrets?
MS: Purely with regard to the filmmaking we probably could have included a few more of our warmer moments with our son – to provide a more balanced picture of our parenting style. We thought the dramatic structural needs – the needs to create a story with dramatic tension and to bring out the boys’ own complexities – required sacrificing some of our own character arcs. We made a conscious choice as filmmakers and parents in the film to willingly be the first to be sacrificed – for the sake of strong story drama and developing more complicated characters in Idris and Seun.
LW: Did you find that the crucial trust filmmakers must have with their subjects became more tenuous as Idris and Seun approached their teen years? What are the particular challenges of filmmaking when the subject is your own child?
JB: We found that the trust we developed with our son prior to his adolescence was essential to our being able to continue filming through his teen years. Idris and Seun’s commitment to the film of course waned at times over the years – but we were able to handle that because we had already developed a trusting relationship with both of them from an early age. We of course also understood Idris’s need for privacy and independence from us. We realized he and Seun needed that space. We addressed that by first providing them with cameras to document their own thoughts and experiences. In fact, we open the film with one of Seun’s own self-interviews. And Idris has some footage sprinkled throughout the film. We also provided a production framework and environment whereby young, men of color videographers would chronicle Idris and Seun’s experience through high school. The boys trusted these young men and enjoyed their presence. As a result, the videographers could explore the boys’ experiences without our interference. The trust we had established was extended to the videographers and to their relationships with the boys.
There are many challenges when the subject is your own child. The tendency to want to stop filming and protect your son, the second-thoughts about whether we are doing the right thing, the reliving of our mistakes as parents in the editing process, the reliving of our son’s own pain in the editing process. But we realized that the ultimate benefit of observing ourselves allowed us to adjust our parenting midstream. But also, the camera became a therapeutic tool to unpack and discuss our experiences in a constructive way.
How our son will later understand the scope of the film and his portrayal was another concern that permeated our every editing decision. We hope we did him justice and that he can be proud of this document as he grows older.
LW: What is your ultimate goal for the film?
JB: As artists, our goal has always been to make a good, provocative and compelling film. I think it is Ralph Ellison who said, with regards to novels and storytelling in general – all important stories are minority stories. The compelling ones often delve into the very particular experiences of a character. It is our job as artists/storytellers to bring out the common humanity in those experiences that can touch upon the universal, and subsequently maybe change attitudes and perceptions. But the first priority must be to the craft. The subject matter and issues the film raises, and the personalities portrayed, seem to be contributing to a greater awareness of the issues our young black men face in this society. Our film continues to be a strong conversation starter wherever we screen that hits home for so many people, not just for African-American families. The film is the first step in a larger campaign we are embracing that unpacks and provides solutions for parents and caregivers, educators and youth, on how best to support our children as they navigate these sometimes treacherous educational waters. We have, in fact, built a campaign that takes these conversations from where the film leaves off for families and institutions. To learn more please go to our website www.americanpromise.org or our twitter handle @promisefilm and facebook.com/americanpromise. And email us to join our newsletter firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo by alamosbasement, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license