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Promise You Won’t Helicopter, Parents

‘American Promise’ is fascinating, flawed

December 10, 2013, 12:00 am
American Promise is a muddled documentary that falls short but ultimately succeeds because of its fascinating subjects. The tale of two middle-class black children, Idris and his friend, Seun, who get into New York’s prestigious Dalton School as kindergarteners, the movie raises lots of questions about education, opportunity, race and helicopter parenting, but answers none of them.

That it answers no question would be fine if that were American Promise’s intent, but that’s not its intent. The filmmakers, Michèle Stephenson and Joe Brewster (Idris’ parents), don’t seem to know exactly what they’re after.

For example, Idris and Seun are clearly smart kids and they grow into smart, sensitive men. But they struggle at Dalton. They feel like outsiders—they’re aware of the fact there aren’t many African-American kids in the school. They struggle academically, too, but it’s not clear whether the curriculum is disadvantageous to them or whether it’s because of dyslexia (Seun) or a late-in-high-school diagnosis of ADHD (Idris) that they’re having difficulty.

Plus, Idris’ parents are overbearing and so in his face—at least the movie is edited that way—it’s a wonder he doesn’t collapse from nervous exhaustion. When both kids get into good colleges, you feel relief. Not that they made it, but that they’ll get a break from mom and dad.


Directed by Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson
CCA Cinematheque
134 min.


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