A new documentary, American Promise, follows the lives of two African-American families as they try to navigate a path for their young sons at The Dalton School—a prestigious, private school in New York City with predominately white student body.
Joe Brewster and his wife Michèle Stephenson decided to chronicle their son, Idris Brewster and his best friend Seun Summers from kindergarten to college. The ambitious film took over 13 years to make and Michele Stephenson says "Everyone involved at some point or another dropped out."
The documentary showcases the difficulties and growing pains the boys faced. For example, they often felt left out by other students because of their race and wondered if they were being stereotyped by their teachers. "I talked to my parents about leaving and we actually applied to other schools." Idris says. "But I just felt as though I had to continue."
Joe, Michèle and Idris spoke with NPR's Michel Martin about letting their lives play out in front of the camera, and the lessons they learned about raising black boys.
On the Decision to Send Idris to Dalton
I was more propelled to do a public school choice. But Joe had gone to school- I had also, in university - gone to school with students who, you know, had experienced the world of independent and college preparatory schools and they were just ten times, a hundred times more prepared than either of us were when it came to university and college...I realized it was an opportunity that we couldn't really pass up because the intellectual stimulation, the nurturing, the individualized attention that we saw students were getting was something we wanted our son to experience. And I ended up saying yes to the school.
On Dealing with Racial Stereotypes in the Classroom
We were always concerned about perception and we assumed that if our son was seen for who he really was - shy, eager, wanting to learn - that he would thrive in any environment. But that's not the way the rules are. And particularly for black boys who come with a legacy - a 400-year legacy of perceptions - which are not kind at times. We were always questioning whether it was that legacy that the teachers were responding to or whether in fact, there were issues that we had to address.
On Being Called Tiger Parents
We want you to throw the first stone. Because it's hard. We didn't come with a manual. We've probably read everything that could possibly be read about parenting and parenting African American boys. And still we struggled. But for us, the take-home message is that if you put in the time, the kids will thrive. If you engage the teachers, the teachers will change their perceptions. I wouldn't call us tiger parents, but I would say that we're not kitty cats.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Whether it's because of the Trayvon Martin case or stories about the so-called achievement gap or comments by leaders like President Obama, the challenges black boys and men face are often a subject of public discussion. And many of the concerns that any number of people express, whether they be parents, educators or politicians, are rooted in education. The simple but somehow intractable question is, are the nation's schools getting the job done when it comes to black boys, and if not, why not? Now an ambitious new documentary tries to answer that question from the inside out. The film is called "American Promise." In it, filmmakers and parents Joe Brewster and Michele Stephenson, who are African-American, follow their son Idris and his friend Seun after they enroll at Dalton, an elite, majority-white private school in New York City. Let's play a short clip from a scene where they and other black parents share their concerns.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "AMERICAN PROMISE")
UNIDENTIFIED MOTHER #1: We put our children in this environment and if they are seeing it now, what perception are they going to have of themselves?
UNIDENTIFIED MOTHER #2: Yeah.
MOTHER #1: Is this going to be something that is going to help them in the future or something that's going to...
MOTHER #2: Hinder them.
MOTHER #1: ...Hinder them?
MARTIN: The film is set to premiere in theaters this week and will air on public television early next year. And Joe Brewster, Michele Stephenson and Idris Brewster are with us now to tell us more about "American Promise." Thank you so much for joining us. Welcome.
MICHELE STEPHENSON: Thank you.
IDRIS BREWSTER: Thank you.
JOE BREWSTER: Thank you for having us.
MARTIN: So let me say at the outs, that this is a very ambitious project. You followed Idris from kindergarten through high school graduation. Joe and Michele, filmmaking is just part of your lives. Joe, you're a psychiatrist. At one point, Michele, you were a human rights lawyer. I have to ask each of you, and you can decide who answers first - although, I'd like to hear from both of you - what gave you the idea and what helped you follow it through?
J.BREWSTER: We aspired to do something different. We had been watching the work of Michael Apted. He is the British director who followed working-class, middle-class and upper-class youth in England. He's been following them over 50 years now. So a little naively, we made the decision to pattern our film after his work. What we thought is that we were in an environment where - that was an amazing educational environment, very rigorous, and we wanted to expose our son to that environment, but we thought other people would be interested in that.
MARTIN: Did either of you have any concern about it, putting your private lives on camera in this way? Michele?
STEPHENSON: Oh, we had concerns about it continuously throughout the 13 years of the project. In fact, I think everyone involved at some point or another dropped out. But, you know, there was this tension between this passion as filmmakers and wanting to tell a story and understanding that the experiences that we're going through, we were not alone in that process.
MARTIN: Idris, how did your folks explain this to you?
I.BREWSTER: Well, explain? It just started out when I was five, so, I mean, I don't really think that there was much decision on my half - on my behalf or, like, a say. But, yeah, I kind of really just grew up with the camera around me.
MARTIN: How did Idris wind up at Dalton?
STEPHENSON: It's interesting because Joe and I had many, many discussions. Anyone who knows about New York City and school decisions that parents have to make, it's very full of tension and anxiety. I was more propelled to do a public school choice, but Joe had gone to school - I had also in university - gone to school with students who, you know, had experienced the world of independent and college preparatory schools. And they were just 10 times - a hundred times more prepared than either of us were when it came to university and college. So we wanted to provide that opportunity for Idris. When I ended up going to visit Dalton with my reticence, wanting to do the public school experience, I realized it was an opportunity that we couldn't really pass up because the intellectual stimulation, the nurturing, the individualized attention that we saw students were getting was something we wanted our son to experience. And I ended up saying yes to the school.
MARTIN: Idris, did you like Dalton?
I.BREWSTER: It was challenging, but I feel - in retrospect now, I feel like that challenge really helped me for college, you know. Just being - it helped me to be more prepared 'cause I was taking - in high school - I was taking, like, almost college-level courses. So that really helped.
MARTIN: There are scenes here that will clearly resonate with, I would say, parents of boys in general and parents of black boys in particular, where you dealt with teachers telling you that your son was disruptive and easily distracted in the classroom, and this is behavior you felt he didn't exhibit in other places. And so you're asking yourself, you know, what's going on here? And Seun's family also had similar experiences. So I just have a short clip. Let me play that.
(SOUNDITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "AMERICAN PROMISE")
SEUN SUMMERS: I'm not doing really good in school. I really feel disappointed 'cause the teachers are kind of strict and sometimes they blame you if you really didn't do something. And they say that you can't read something that you really can, like, it's too hard for you. You get really frustrated.
MARTIN: That was Seun's voice that we're hearing now. So I'm directing this question to Joe and Michele. When you heard those kinds of things, what did you think was going on?
J.BREWSTER: I should start this by saying that we are feelers first before thinkers, and so we were in pain. And we spent a good period of time dealing with that kind of agony, which just caused us to really think of how do we problem solve, which was our second, you know, move. We were always concerned about perception, and we assumed that if our son was seen for who he really was - shy, eager, wanting to learn - that he would thrive in any environment, but that's not the way the rules are. And particularly for black boys who come with a legacy, a 400-year legacy of perceptions, which are not kind at times. We were always questioning whether it was that legacy that the teachers were responding to or whether, in fact, there were issues that we had to address.
STEPHENSON: We used that way of trying to understand what was going on to actually engage with the teachers and to reach out to other parents to see if they were having the same experiences.
MARTIN: Do you think it made a difference?
J.BREWSTER: Absolutely. What we discovered early on is that when we went to other parents, even the African-American parents, we were met with silence. And retrospectively, we understand that those parents also were suffering in silence, wondering if the perceptions of their son were accurate and unable to share them with us. Many of those parents were subsequently asked to leave that school, and the parents who shared, the parents who were able to have these difficult conversations, their boys thrived.
MARTIN: Well, you know, it's interesting because throughout, there is this whole question of stay or go. And unfortunately here, I'm going to have to give a spoiler just - it's a spoiler alert here. And if you're just joining us, we're talking about "American Promise." It's a documentary that follows two African-American boys from kindergarten through high school graduation. We're speaking about this with the filmmakers and parents of one of the boys, Joe Brewster and Michele Stephenson and their son Idris Brewster. And Seun's parents decided at some point that he should leave. We'll leave the details of how that actually occurred. But they enrolled him at Benjamin Banneker Academy, which is a predominantly black school. And here's a clip of one of the administrators talking about how they feel their school will better serve him.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "AMERICAN PROMISE")
UNIDENTIFIED ADMINISTRATOR: We want kids to be successful, do some challenging work, but make them feel good about themselves, and not always worrying about how they're going to fit in or how people are going to look at them. I'm not against, you know, kids being in diverse environments, but at this point, over my many years of being in this system, it's not really necessary. White people never talk about that. They never say, I want to go to a - take my kid out of this all-white school and put them in a black school so things will be more diverse. And just - people don't think that way, and I don't know why we have to think that way.
MARTIN: So, Joe and Michele, what about it?
J.BREWSTER: It's a lot more complicated than that. I mean, like, the national discussion now is about standards, right? And so you can provide an environment with high standards, but if you don't have the social-emotional support, the kids will never achieve those standards. Likewise, you can provide an environment that's emotionally supportive, but if you don't train the teachers, give them the time, the class size to help the children achieve those standards - so it's always a mix.
MARTIN: Can I just translate that and just get kind of right to the point and say you just don't think it was a good enough school for your son?
J.BREWSTER: No, I didn't say that. What I said is that you have to find the right mix. I do not want my son educated and not emotionally together. There are other things that we seek to achieve when we raise our son, and it's not just a, you know, a 2200 board score.
MARTIN: There are some tough scenes - I'm just going tell for people who haven't seen the film - there are some tough scenes there where you are very candid about the fact that the other kids don't necessarily include you in their social lives. I mean, we see this playing out and I think other people who have had experiences of being minorities in some of these kinds of schools will have had those experiences and will know them to be true. Did you ever want to leave?
I.BREWSTER: I kind of, like, talked to my parents about leaving, and we actually applied to other schools at the end of eighth grade. But I just felt as though - I just felt as though I had to continue. I wasn't struggling, like, to the point where it was, like, necessary for me to leave, and I felt like high school would be a better experience, which it was. It was a much better experience than middle school.
MARTIN: Joe talked earlier about this whole balance issue between, you know, standards and, you know, socioemotional support and things of that sort, and that kind of plays out in a number of different ways. I'm just going to play a short clip from the film. This is after Idris' basketball team lost a game. And I'll just play this and then we'll talk about it. Here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "AMERICAN PROMISE")
I.BREWSTER: (crying) You're making everyone feel worse. You're saying that they - you're saying that they're horrible.
J.BREWSTER: I didn't say - I didn't say you were horrible.
I.BREWSTER: (crying) You just said that. You just said the team played horrible.
J.BREWSTER: No, no. I said you guys played horribly. And it's true. You sucked.
MARTIN: Now people will hear this, and I think they are going to have many reactions depending on their own experiences and parenting philosophy. I think a lot of people have been raised with the idea that you need to be twice as good to get half as far, and you're toughening him up for the world that is. And I think other people will hear this and think this is every stereotype of an overbearing parent who's overly invested in a certain outcome for his kid. So, Joe, I'm going to ask you, what do you think we should draw from that?
J.BREWSTER: I think you should draw that that guy that spoke in the film - me - is human. He's a father. He makes mistakes. And if you give me enough time, I'll rise to the occasion. What do you think, Idris?
I.BREWSTER: I think that's - I don't think it was actually that bad. But, I feel like he...
J.BREWSTER: This is Stockholm Syndrome going on right here.
I.BREWSTER: No, I...
MARTIN: Is it a coincidence that he decided to go to college across the country in California? Just thought we'd ask? Idris, yes, we do want to hear from you on this.
I.BREWSTER: I think that - even though I feel like he was harsh on me in there, and he was harsh on me in a lot of aspects, especially with basketball, but I feel like it was never - it was always good intention. He was always just trying to push me to go further 'cause he knew that I could go further.
MARTIN: What do you think about that, Michele?
STEPHENSON: For me, it's really about being able to have the expectations at a point where I know he's capable of going and not lowering that bar because there are too many of these boys whose bars are too low.
MARTIN: Well, let me ask you this, though, since you were pivotal in a scene where he's going through his college choices. And at the point at which we see him in the film, he's already been accepted to Morehouse, which is a - I think has trained some of the nation's most important and impactful leaders, like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He's been accepted to Occidental, which I may point out that our current president attended before he transferred to Columbia. And you all are still very disappointed.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "AMERICAN PROMISE")
STEPHENSON: Idris. Come down here, Idris.
STEPHENSON: Right now. Your father's on the phone. Sorry?
I.BREWSTER: Why does - what does he want?
J.BREWSTER: What did we learn from this?
I.BREWSTER: I don't really care. I already knew this was going to happen.
STEPHENSON: That's not the kind of analysis that a Dalton student would make.
I.BREWSTER: I'm sorry. What do you want me to say? What do you want me to say? You could point at everything. You could point at the - you could even point at the SAT scores. You could point at the grades. You could point at the teachers. You could point at the counselor. You could point at me. You could point at extra curriculars. You could point at anything. You don't know. You don't know. You're never going to know. You're never going to know.
J.BREWSTER: You're a brilliant young man, but you're lazy.
MARTIN: You all made this film, and you're choosing to let us into this experience. So I want to know what it is that you'd like us to draw from that?
STEPHENSON: We're talking about emotions that are raw in the moment. While we were very happy with the acceptances that happened, there's always disappointment with rejection, especially when thinking about what opportunities some other schools might provide. I mean, for those people who will see the film, they will see Idris coming into his own in terms of his relationship with us and the decisions that he makes and how he bases those decisions. And we ultimately respect that, admire it and support it.
MARTIN: You know, I'm dying to know if you - after you've seen yourselves on camera - and, you know, we're all kind of laughing here 'cause we've seen the film and there are moments at which - may I say, with great respect, that some people might find you come across as real jerks in this film at some points, real tiger parents. Some people might feel that, you know what, you're just doing what has to be done to make sure that those kids get across the finish line. So forgive me for people who haven't seen it yet - don't know exactly what it is we're responding to here. But when you look at it, I'm curious what you see, and I'm wondering if you're doing anything different with your younger son as a result of your experience with Idris?
J.BREWSTER: Well, I think it's clear that we've learned from mistakes and we learn every day. Our younger son is in an independent school. We tend to speak with him - to him with a softer voice. And I think he's learned from the film and he's learned from his brother, and I think he's better off for it. But I'd like to speak to, you know, our experience as parents. We put those experiences in the film because we want you to throw the first stone because it's hard. We didn't come with a manual. We've probably read everything that could possibly be read about parenting and parenting African-American boys and still we struggled. But for us, the take-home message is that if you put in the time, the kids will thrive. If you engage the teachers, the teachers will change their perceptions. I wouldn't call us tiger parents, but I would say that we're not kitty cats.
MARTIN: That's a good way to leave it there for now. Joe Brewster and Michele Stephenson are the filmmakers behind "American Promise." That documentary goes to theaters tomorrow in selected cities. They joined us from our bureau in New York. Idris Brewster was featured in the film. He joined us from NPR West, which is in Culver City, California where he is attending college. Thank you all so much for speaking with us. Congratulations.
J.BREWSTER: Thank you.
STEPHENSON: Thank you.
MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.