Late in the documentary “American Promise,” co-director
sits next to her adolescent son, Idris — one of the movie’s subjects — as he reads a disheartening e
mail. They’ve been opening college admissions notices
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You can see every flicker in their faces, which allows you to notice
the glassiness in Idris’
eyes. He never cries, but you may find yourself on the verge.
At this point, you have spent a lot of time with Idris, whose life, triumphs and failures — starting when he was 5 and continuing until after he graduates from high school — are laid bare. You care about this kid because the filmmakers have made you care, which makes what happens next difficult to take.
“You didn’t get in,” Stephenson says flatly, as the camera lingers on another notice. It’s one of the more insensitive expressions of parental disappointment I’ve seen in a documentary — until, that is, Idris’ father, Joe Brewster, the movie’s other director, gets on the phone.
“You’re a brilliant young man,” Brewster tells Idris, “but you’re lazy.” You may tremble again, this time with anger.
And you may wonder what these filmmakers, these parents, thought they were doing by turning their son into a cinematic spectacle. Their intentions are vague, even with the introductory text that explains how, 13 years earlier, Idris and his friend Seun Summers began kindergarten at a private Manhattan institution, later revealed as the Dalton School.
“Expecting great things,” it reads, “we set out to document the boys’ entire education.” What follows is a 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 pre-adolescents, they’re struggling, and so are the filmmakers.
In some respects, “American Promise” is best viewed as a look at parenthood in an anxious age. The filmmakers’ love for Idris is as transparent as their worry. (Seun faces his own burdens and tough love.) Yet there are times when their concern feels less about Idris and more about them. When Stephenson talks about a letter from Dalton inviting Idris to participate in a tutoring program, she worries about “a perception” that young black boys need extra help. In the next scene, Brewster says that some parents at Dalton, without specifying their race, “are spending up to $30,000 a year for tutoring — that’s more than the tuition.”
It’s impossible to know what to make of these scenes, which follow a pattern that informs much of the movie: Race is raised as a possible reason for the boys’ problems, and then other potential determinants (a learning disorder, illness) are introduced. But the filmmakers don’t engage with these life events and issues: They just line them up as if their significance were transparent. But nothing is.