No one can accuse filmmakers Joe Brewster and Michele Stephenson of taking the easy way out. For 13 years they followed the educational lives of two African American boys (one of them their son), amassing more than 800 hours of footage in the process.
Edited down to a bit more than two hours, "American Promise," the film that resulted, is a remarkable documentary, though only partially for the reason its creators intended. Though this film does in fact deal with what the filmmakers call the question of "race, class and education for African American boys," it ends up being of as much interest for the personal stories it tells of two young men trying to find their place in the world.
The notion for the movie started when Brewster and Stephenson's son, Idris, was accepted into a program at Dalton, one of New York City's elite private schools, to make their brand of education accessible to a racially diverse group of children who otherwise could not afford it.
Fans of Michael Apted's memorable "Up" documentary series, the filmmakers initially envisioned recording the lives of a group of these kids, but ended up filming only Idris and his friend Seun, starting from their days in kindergarten through their high school graduation and a little bit beyond.
While we do get to clearly see how being African American males from the middle class Fort Greene section of Brooklyn was a factor in the kind of educational experience the boys had at Dalton, their stories are so specific it is impossible to draw any definitive lessons from what they went through.
On the other hand, because the stories are so specific, and because they play out over such a long period of time, it is hard not to be fascinated by this intimate look at how particular families deal with the great parental challenge of shepherding their children through the all-important educational experience.
Given that Brewster and Stephenson are key players in the story as well as the directors (15 people have photography credits), it is worth noting that they apparently did not feel the need to always present themselves in a favorable light. Idris' parents are shown as being quite hard on their son in ways that can be difficult to watch.
In fact, the struggles that take place as parents who were raised in one environment attempt to impart lessons learned to children who are coming of age in a different one is one of the most involving dynamics of "American Promise."
Both sets of parents were well aware of the fish-out-of-water aspect of their sons' attending Dalton, but their hopes for their futures — "Dalton will open doors for him for the rest of his life" says Brewster — outweigh their doubts.
The cultural differences between these two kids and the majority of Dalton students do make things initially difficult for Idris and Seun, so much so that the parents worry they will develop low self-esteem. Equally difficult is the question of whether the school, which is presented as well-intentioned, is singling out the boys because of their race when it talks about their behavior problems or just trying to help them when it suggests options like increased coaching.
Also a factor, though not always acknowledged, is how the older generation's attitudes — developed through their own life experiences — affect their children. Because of how much determination the parents felt it took to break through to their level of success, they are frustrated when their sons don't seem to possess it.
"I wish he had half the drive I did at that age," Idris' mom says, perhaps not realizing why her son, whose life feels easier than that of his parents, doesn't necessarily share their urgency. Where these children end up, and what their parents think of their destination, is a journey worth observing.
MPAA rating: None
Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes
Playing: At Laemmle's Music Hall, Beverly Hills; Playhouse, PasadenaCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times