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Like many parents, Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson decided to capture their first-born’s major milestones on video—first day of school, basketball games, middle-school graduation, preparations for the prom. They filmed the mundane moments, too: Walking the family dog, meltdowns over homework, a trip to the doctor that resulted in an ADHD diagnosis. All told, the family compiled more than 800 hours of footage starting the day that their son, Idris, and his best friend, Seun, entered kindergarten at Manhattan’s Dalton School—two middle-class black boys on scholarships at one of the nation’s most exclusive, and predominantly white, educational institutions.
In the resulting documentary, American Promise, which won a Sundance Jury Award and airs nationally on PBS on February 3, parents will see much that they recognize from their everyday struggles to raise confident, well-rounded kids—from the last-minute cramming on the drive to school to arguments around the kitchen table over a mediocre report card. But at a time when study after study shows black boys on the wrong side of a staggering achievement gap, the film offers an intimate look at the additional burdens of cultural bias and the social typecasting of young black men. Here’s a trailer:
This week, the Brewster and Stephenson release a new parenting book, Promises Kept: Raising Black Boys to Succeed in School and Life. Based on their 13-year-experiment, the book includes expert advice on dealing with bias and stereotyping. I reached the couple at home in Brooklyn as they prepared for a final screening at the New York Film Festival to discuss overbooked kids, Trayvon Martin, and what it’s like raising a child under the camera’s watchful eye.
Mother Jones: How has American Promise been received on the festival circuit?
Joe Brewster: We were told we were the first in history to get a two-time standing ovation at the New York Film Festival. That’s kind of amazing, although another film got one the same night so I think they’re in the standing ovation mode over there. But the kids were there and they got one for themselves. And a number of parents came up to us, talking about how it spoke to them.