“American Promise,” a new documentary opening in New York City on Friday and elsewhere later, started out with the working title, “The Dalton Experiment.”
Filmmakers Michele Stephenson and George Brewster chose the prestigious Dalton School in Manhattan for their son, Idris, despite the lengthy commute it would require from their home in the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn. Early in the boy’s kindergarten year there, the parents decided to film the experience of African-American students at the school.
Three other families in the project would eventually drop out, but Idris’s friend Seun Summers would also be a long-term subject.
The result is a gripping, two-hour and 20-minute film chronicling the boys’ struggles and triumphs at the school and at home.
Seun’s father, Anthony Summers, early in the film welcomes the opportunity for his son to attend Dalton. “I went to public schools in New York City,” he says. I know I didn’t want to send my kid to public schools in New York City.”
His mother, Stacey O. Summers, says, “I want Seun to be comfortable around white folks, cause at this point I’m not even comfortable around white folks.”
Race is a more dominant theme than class. Both families seem to live comfortably in Brooklyn, they though marvel at Dalton parents who can spend as much on private school tutoring for their children as they spend on tuition at the school.
Stacey Summers at one point finds Seun, around age 7, brushing his gums so hard they bleed because he wants to be as light as those of his white classmates.
Meanwhile, Idris Brewster is asked around the same age whether he feels it is an issue that he is one of the few black students at Dalton.
“No, it’s never an issue,” he says confidently, also around age 7. Around the black players at his neighborhood basketball court, though, Idris worries about sounding too white, and he begins to speak “slangish,” as he puts it.
By middle school, Idris has been invited to more than 20 bar mitzvahs by his white Jewish classmates. He wonders out loud whether his life might be better if he were white.
Seun is on academic watch by middle school, and his parents feel Dalton is intent on pushing him out before high school. It’s not revealing too much to say that Seun does leave Dalton after 8th grade for a public school in Brooklyn.
Dalton’s middle school director says on camera that Seun is “a wonderful human being” but Dalton was not “a good match for him.” Another Dalton administrator laments that African-American boys have more difficulty at the school than African-American girls do.
By this point of the film, the classic school basketball documentary “Hoop Dreams” comes to mind. (Stephenson and Brewster cite that film’s director, Steve James, as an influence.)
“Hoop Dreams” followed two promising young basketball players from the playgrounds of the West Side of Chicago to a prestigious suburban Catholic high school. One of the boys thrives there, while the other loses his scholarship and returns to an inner-city school.
Back at Seun Summers’ public school in Brooklyn, no one seems totally shocked about a melee that erupts during a school assembly. Seun will face a number of daunting obstacles during his high school years, including a heartbreaking family tragedy. But he will persevere.
Idris, and his overly demanding parents, are the real stars of the film. Idris shows great ambition with his college applications, but he doesn’t get in everywhere he applies. His mother is not very emotionally supportive as she and Idris check his acceptances online.
And after some college rejections, Idris’s father tells him, “What have we learned from this? You’re a brilliant young man, but you’re lazy. You’re not at the top of your game. You’re in bed. Get out of bed.”
What do we learn from this after more than two hours with these families? That race is never far from the discussion in almost any facet of American education, even though, as Idris observed at a young age, it’s not really a barrier if you don’t let it be.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.