Take your pick: Would you rather (A) spend tons of money to send your young black son to a largely white private school, where he will be constantly reminded of his minority standing and subjected to double-standards from peers and teachers, or (B) take your chances in public school, where he will likely find a supportive peer group but faces substandard education and potential dangerous conflicts? Those hoping for a secret answer (C) haven’t been paying attention to the depressing collision of institutionalized racism and falling standards that define education in modern America.
American Promise is a harrowing look into the lives of two sweet, bright boys whose paths diverge over the course of their 13-year scholastic journey. Directors Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson collected a baker’s dozen years of evidence documenting the challenges that black families face when it comes to educating children, specifically males. Casual racists and dismissive morons often attempt to stitch the problems faced by the black community onto the backs of their parents; American Promise is an overwhelming rejoinder to any reductive jerkoff who wants to paint this community with one broad brush. The parents presented here are amazing advocates for their children; they are dedicated to their betterment and are unrelenting champions of the people they wish their boys to become. Our system shouldn’t make that so hard.
Idris and Seun are best friends who start kindergarten together at Manhattan’s Dalton School, a private institution that takes students all the way through high-school. Although they are friends, their personalities are immediately different. Idris is a sensitive kid who struggles with attention deficit disorder, while Seun battles dyslexia and is a bit more stoic. Idris, the son of the directors, and Seun remain together throughout grade school and middle school, surviving the subtle prejudices against them. But when “coming of age” starts to hit “come of age,” Seun no longer has a place at Dalton. He goes to high school in the New York Public Education system, while Idris stays at the private school.
The resulting dichotomy between learning institutions is as telling as the unconscious bigotry that occurred early on at Dalton. Behaviors that were exhibited by all children in Dalton’s grade school were singled out as problematic only in Idris and Seun. Although they never faced any explicit racism that we see in the footage, questions of race were always bubbling beneath the surface, as evident by a baby-faced, middle-school-aged Idris stating his life would be easier if he was white. When Seun goes to public school and finds a black peer group, it is as comforting as the violence that erupts at a school function is disquieting.
American Promise is a snapshot, not a call-to-arms. Unlike Waiting for Superman, the documentary isn’t pointing fingers or offering solutions, which can feel frustrating. But it stands as the most heavily researched, thorough example of the education of black males by caring parents. And really, that’s the biggest take-home message here. While our broken system should be easier, if you’re lucky enough to have parents like these, success is the only possible outcome.
Grade = B