American Promise, which won the U.S. Documentary Special Jury award for Achievement in Filmmaking at Sundance in January, screens once more—this afternoon—at the New York Film Festival, and we begin our overview with Jennifer Dworkin, writing for Film Comment: “When filmmaking couple Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson’s 5-year-old son Idris and his best friend, Seun, both African-American, are accepted into the highly prestigious and almost exclusively white Dalton School, the proud parents embark on an amazingly ambitious project to document the two boys’ entire educations. Spanning 13 years, the resulting film offers a coming-of-age story rivaled perhaps only by Michael Apted’s Up series in scope. American Promise is compelling both for its intimate focus on the lives of these middle-class families and in what it has to say about the struggle for identity of even the most talented African-American boys in a society that still often fears and dismisses them.”
“As in the Up universe, American Promise establishes quickly that not all opportunities, and not all children, are created the same,” writes Ela Bittencourt in Slant. “In spite of their auspicious beginnings, Dalton soon flags Idris and Seun for lack of attention, unruly conduct, and below-average performance…. Why it’s particularly the black boys who fare worst at Dalton, and whether this is indicative of a larger trend, are some of the film’s big unanswered questions.”
“Given the way this long-game documentary charts two diverging paths, comparisons to Hoop Dreams will be inevitable (and not wholly undeserved),” writes Time Out New York‘s David Fear. “But while American Promise lacks the state-of-the-nation impact of that landmark doc, it doesn’t mean you won’t feel the pleasure of these kids’ triumphs, the pain of their tragedies or the pressures of ambition, affecting parents as much as students.”
“What makes American Promise most interesting,” finds Glenn Dunks, writing at the Film Experience, “is that directors Brewster and Stephenson are actually two of the film’s subjects. And they do not come off well, which I guess is a sign of artistic integrity.” For the Playlist‘s Kevin Jagernauth, “what this documentary perhaps concludes is that the ‘American Promise’ lies not in the endless opportunities the country offers, but in the pact parents make with their children, to support them in whatever opportunity they happen to seize.” And for the New York Times‘ Stephen Holden, the film “suggests that even in the most liberal ‘post-racial’ environment, perceptions of race and ethnicity are unavoidable impediments to both boys who are now college age.”
Update, 10/15: “For a while, American Promise looks as if it might be slowly building a thesis about the failure of diversification,” writes Mike D’Angelo at the Dissolve. “This line of inquiry ultimately dead-ends, however…. While American Promise often feels frustratingly unfocused and random, however, it compensates to some degree with equally random details about growing up in urban America.”
Updates, 10/18: “While they didn’t set out to make a film about what newspaper columnists refer to as the ‘black male achievement gap,’ Brewster and Stephenson have done just that, and it’s hard to imagine a more penetrating and powerful one,” writes Godfrey Cheshire at RogerEbert.com. “Rather than pretending to offer any encompassing explanations or solutions for what is obviously a very complex and multi-faceted problem, the filmmakers explore it in the intimate context of two families. Seeing it that up-close and personal provides a vivid and immediate basis for discussion, and indeed, it’s easy to believe that American Promise will be the basis for many discussions in U.S. homes and schools for years to come.”
In the opposite corner, the NYT‘s Manohla Dargis wonders “what these filmmakers, these parents, thought they were doing by turning their son into a cinematic spectacle.” American Promise “is an intellectually murky look at two children that hovers around race, class and gender and consistently fails to take the child’s point of view as each faces a rigorous academic regime, demanding parents, disorders and worse. By the time Idris and Seun are preadolescents, they’re struggling, and so are the filmmakers.”
“Though the films are different in significant ways, American Promise is a fitting complement to Hoop Dreams,” argues Anthony Kaufman at Sundance Now. After considering those differences and the common ground, he writes, “Apparently it’s still a drag to be young, black and male.”
For Ben Kenigsberg, writing at the AV Club, American Promise is “a bold experiment that’s also a textbook case of filmmakers being too close to their material.”
Meantime, Joe Brewster and Michele Stephenson are guests on the Leonard Lopate Show.
Update, 10/19: Brandon Harris interviews Brewster and Stephenson for Filmmaker.