American Promise

In 1999, filmmakers Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson turned the camera on themselves and began filming their five-year-old son, Idris, and his best friend, Seun, as they started kindergarten at the prestigious Dalton School just as the private institution was committing to diversify its student body. Their cameras continued to follow both families for another 12 years as the paths of the two boys diverged—one continued private school while the other pursued a very different route through the public education system.


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  • ★★★★½ review by Ken Rudolph on Letterboxd

    This film answers a question for me: what distinguishes a great documentary? For me it is illuminating our existence on Earth in a fresh, filmic way. It doesn't have to teach a lesson, it doesn't have to present a thesis. It does even need to be important. Just illuminating and unflaggingly interesting.

    American Promise is the meticulously chronicled story of two bright black boys from Brooklyn, Seun and Idris, covering their lives from age 5 to 18. They are both from educated, middle class families...and both start out the film as pals attending on scholarships a prestigious private school, The Dalton Academy. Interestingly, both have disparate learning disabilities that the two families must deal with. The film is directed by Idris's parents, who are unafraid of showing their own involvement as characters in the narrative, warts and all. I don't think we've ever seen the lives of black male children in racially divided America shown in such unsparing detail. Perhaps because the project was started when the boys were very young, they've become totally natural in the presence of the camera (or seemingly natural, matter how skilled the editing or cinematography, 13 years of life can't be distilled down to 135 minutes, even choice, incredibly intimate minutes.)

    The sum total is a documentary which rivals Michael Apted's Seven-Up films and the An American Family mini-series for an unvarnished and insight filled view of urban family Americana.

  • ★★★★★ review by Raymond Calderón on Letterboxd

    The most emotional powerful film I have ever scene. Period.

    I was lucky enough to be able to catch a screening of this movie during the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival and was attracted specifically to the fact it charted not only one but two lives from 5 to 18. That by itself is an incredible achievement. What makes this even more powerful is that this film had so many moments that had occurred in my own life right down to a T. Really opened my eyes to the universality of growing up and of raising children.

    Really beautiful, honest film that everyone should watch.

  • ★★★★½ review by Mark Gubarenko on Letterboxd

    Special Jury Award for Achievement in Filmmaking, U.S. Documentary @ Sundance Film Festival 2013

    Simply WOW! One of the best documentaries ever. Very interestingly done, i could only bow before those filmmakers, who spent more than 13 years filming this documentary about friendship and scholarship of two black kids. And what it led to.

    I honestly thought that there's no racial tensions this day in States, but it isn't so. But it's not the main theme in the movie. It's so interesting that there's even no dramatic fiction feature in cinemas near you, that you can compare to this one.

  • ★★★½ review by FreddieMercury on Letterboxd

    An insightful and affectionate documentary on black issues in their community and in the education system. Though the documentary had a powerful story, I wish it ended with the same amount of enthusiasm.

  • ★★★★ review by Kevin Smokler on Letterboxd

    Documentary about two African-American boys who both go to the elite Dalton school in New York. Filmed by one set of parents which is remarkable given these parents are an attorney and psychiatrist not filmmakers. Because of this, there's probably a bit too much focus on one kid and not the other and not enough on their friendship which how the film is advertised. Given that, there's still an enormous achievement here, filming two American kinds practically their entire young lives and turning into a coherent, moving narrative. Important questions here about how black boys are educated, how they fit in or don't and why. Really sad scene where one of the kids tries to hail a cab and can't.

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