American Promise Shines a Light on How Far We’ve Come in Terms of Race and How Very Far We Still Have to Go


A group of black parents sits noshing at a dining room table in Brooklyn, brought together out of concern for the unforeseen consequences of having enrolled their sons in the exclusive, almost all-white Dalton School in Manhattan. The boys’ academic strengths are withering, and their self-esteem is plummeting. “Have we helped or hindered our sons?” asks one mother in frustration. With the documentary American Promise, married co-directors Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson set out to record the journey of their son, Idris, and his best friend, Seun, when the two were enrolled at Dalton as five-year-olds. The plan was to capture a privileged education trajectory that would set the boys up for all the advantages in life. Instead, viewers are treated to two incredibly rich coming-of-age tales, in which the stuff of universal childhood and teen narratives (struggling to fit in at school; battling over chores and homework; grappling with hormones and burgeoning sexuality; coming to terms with parents’ fallibility and mortality) is accompanied by racialized rites of passage that include being passed over by cabs for the first time; navigating double standards at school; code-switching to be “blacker” at home while being allowed to more freely express themselves in a school environment that still penalizes kids for those authentic selves. The film ends on up notes, but its strength is that it’s not really a feel-good movie, instead shining a light on both how far we have come in terms of race in America and how very far we still have to go. That’s encapsulated in one father’s recounting of racial tensions he encountered in his youth at a newly integrated school: “I mean, things have changed,” he says hopefully, before laughing uncertainly and adding, “haven’t they?”