A More Perfect Union: Joe Brewster and Michele Stephenson on American Promise
In the increasingly tony Fort Greene neighborhood just east of downtown Brooklyn, filmmakers Michele Stephenson and Joe Brewster raised a son named Idris. Very early on in his youth, just as their son was about to become one of the few young black males to enroll in The Dalton School, a vaunted Upper East Side prep school that either trains young masters of the universe in the ways of maintaining their hegemony or educates a diverse set of the city’s best students in a humane and liberal environment (all depends on your outlook), the couple decided to make a documentary. They turned the camera on themselves, their son, his best friend Seun and the mostly wealthy and white milieu thexd children were entering to make a film about the notion of diversity in America as seen through the experience of outsiders in an elite institution that was struggling to maintain its precarious grasp on this embattled and contentious ideal. Thirteen years later, they have emerged with American Promise, a courageous and groundbreaking film that speaks volumes about the ways in which members of America’s most segregated and subjugated minority group struggle to thrive in environments in which they are few.
Idris and Seun find it difficult to fit in at Dalton, both academically and socially. Idris is not destined for basketball greatness, as much as he (and Dalton) would like him to be. The school achievement gap that haunts black men across the social economic strata rears its ugly head, but so do various forms of insidious racial bias; it’s hard for these guys to get dance partners at the middle school soirees. Some teachers more or less expect them to fail. Representative as they are of an ethnic minority in a largely homogeneous community, they have to answer all of their peers’ questions about the nature of blackness, a taxing burden. The families, far from the social circles that the other parents inhabit, feel isolated from the “community” of Dalton. Seun, who both looks and sounds less assimilated, whose mother admits near the film’s beginning to not wanting her child “to grow uncomfortable around white people” as she claims she still is, fades away from Dalton, eventually finding a more welcome home in the Bed-Stuy’s black-majority Benjamin Banneker Academy. Idris fares better; although he’s eventually diagnosed with ADHD in tenth grade, he’s adept at speaking in registers that make white people comfortable and is savvy enough to use street cadences and syntax when he’s back in Brooklyn playing pick-up games with his young black peers, the ones who haven’t been given what is sold to the Brewster-Stephenson family as a lottery ticket of acceptance into another strata of society for their young child. Both sets of parents struggle with ambiguous feelings about whether their children are in an environment that will most easily allow them to self-actualize; race is absolutely at the forefront of this and is discussed in stark and unyielding terms by these pair of black families and their extended circles.
And so it goes; the more things change, the more they stay the same. Our hapless politicians frequently promise us, usually in the aftermath of yet another silly controversy sparked by retrograde attitudes, another dead black child left sprawled on the street by gunfire or sundry humiliation visited upon one black body or another, a “conversation about race.” They ought to just point folks toward American Promise instead. The film, which world premiered at Sundance last January before having its local premiere at the recently concluded New York Film Festival, will broadcast on PBS in February. It opens theatrically at the IFC Center in Manhattan today.
Filmmaker: What was the initial reasoning behind why you wanted to embark upon a project that would be so inevitability bound up in the development of your own lives and that of your child for such an extraordinary length of time?
Stephenson: The initial spark was a very practical one for us as filmmakers. We wanted to continue doing our craft. We were interested in documentary work and we loved longitudinal pieces such as Michael Apted’s 7 Up series, Hoop Dreams, etc., but we had to balance a number of different responsibilities back in 1999, not only feeding ourselves but wanting to continue. As Idris was entering kindergarten we realized we, the families and the students, were part of this diversity mission that The Dalton School was on to be more reflective of the demographics of New York City. Both Joe and I were unfamiliar with the dynamics of college prep schools. We had both gone to Ivy League universities, but we had gone to public school when we were younger and didn’t know this environment. The filmmakers in us said, “Why don’t you do this longitudinal piece that will take us through high school graduation?” We wanted to check in and shoot with people off and on with the hope that we’d have something by the end of this journey. At the start it was really about exploring diversity and what it meant. Not just to the boys. We knew Seun’s family from before, but their were three other families with three girls involved when we started the project, a white girl from the Upper West Side, a half-Latina girl and an African-American girl. They all gradually dropped out and by the time the boys hit middle school, it was just the two boys and the two families involved as part of this project. That’s when we realized there was a big shift about what this story was about. We also made certain decisions when we started. We thought the boys and kids could drive the narrative but we quickly realized that we needed other voices in there to help fill in the project. We didn’t just rely on talking heads and interviews. We really wanted to push the envelope with our observational work. We explored being flies on the wall and not just with us shooting but other camerapeople.
Brewster: You got all the talking points in. We’re done. [laughs] Let me say this. We started the process with an additional concern. We were concerned about the achievement gap in filmmaking. Our first film was at Sundance, it was nominated for a Spirit Award, it’s called The Keeper starring Giancarlo Esposito. We thought the skies would open and we would be working around the clock. But that is not what happened. We became increasingly concerned we were not going to be offered a film or a television contract. So we were thinking of ways we could continue this craft deeply aware that we had to make it work for ourselves and develop ideas we could accomplish on our budget that were interesting a provocative. Time trumps everything. It was a way to cheaply document something that was important to us. Many people question whether or not this achievement gap for boys exist and they want to point the finger at institutions like Dalton. What we say to audiences is that the gap exists everywhere. We do not give you a pass, at least in the discussions, of allowing you to focus on one small element of society and leave the theater feeling great. The way that African-American boys and men are perceived is an issue that effects all of us.
Filmmaker: Did you have any great periods of doubt, significant amounts of time over the years when you thought the project wouldn’t turn out as you’d initially hoped?
Brewster: I would say this. We went through ups and downs. There were many downs and many highs. The downs were especially heartfelt. When the girls dropped out early on we began to wonder what is it about the girls that made it hard for them to let us in. We began to wonder about the white girls particularly and our ability to develop trust in those families. We began to question ourselves and our ability to bridge the confidence divide to assure parents that we were going to do our best to make a good film and protect their children along the way. We had issues with the schools concerning whether they would let us in or not. We had catastrophic illness.
Stephenson: For me the low points were very personal in terms of reflecting on my role as a parent versus my role as a filmmaker. Turning the camera on in moments when my son was vulnerable was very difficult for me in terms of, was I doing the right thing? Was the film interfering in my ability to parent him in a way that was best for him? Those moments of questioning happened very often. We had many conversations about it. Ultimately I realized that the camera became a tool for us to end a difficult moment. It was even therapeutic in that although there were moments when I was apprehensive to turn the camera on there were certain places we went that we needed to go regarding his own self-esteem and how we were handling it that we wouldn’t have gone without the camera. I was constantly up day and night thinking, “Am I doing the right thing, having this camera on?” Ultimately we had to build trust in everyone involved in the film, but we also had to trust the craft. I was listening to Albert Maysles at a talk he gave at the NYFF. He’s working with this very young filmmaker on a project and she had turned the camera on her parents and realized that there were questions she asked her parents that she never would have asked had the camera not been on. I’ve had that experience before with previous projects I had done, but they were personal; it was the subject I was working with who I had given a camera to in order to tell this personal story and all these poignant moments came through. I had to go through something similar with my son.
Filmmaker: Now that it’s over, do you ever ponder how your relationship with Idris would be different if so many of these crucial moments in his youth had not been mediated by the camera? How did it color your relationship?
Stephenson: I think it made us stronger. I think our relationship has a level of comfort that I think the camera has helped.
Brewster: I think that the highest points in the process were where he stepped in and made critical analyses of his current situation and talking about race and class. I remember all of the difficult points before he got here. I realize that we’re talking about a guy who had a very rough struggle, is acutely aware of that struggle and got through it. He had a longer trajectory. He had to master multiple cultures, just like a kid who has to speak three languages. My son’s trajectory to where he’s come from is longer in his social and emotional development. But he’s aware of that and we’re very proud of him.
Stephenson: The camera was not on 24/7. Thirteen years, 800 hours of footage that spans between exteriors, classrooms, schools, living rooms — it comes to less than one hour a month. The film works in a way where you feel like you’re there 24/7. We did a good job in terms of constructing a story and making people feel it, but it wasn’t an omnipresent thing in our lives. Idris didn’t think of it as a serious movie, he just thought of it as his parents with a camera. He didn’t take it as seriously until he realized what product came out of it. I think that’s part of the job we did as filmmakers with everyone involved, establishing a level of trust so that the camera was just an extension of ourselves.
Brewster: Observational filmmaking is very different from other forms of documentary. It feels so intimate that the audience is disarmed. We realized by the time Idris was in third or fourth grade that interviews and exposition didn’t work. We had to have an intimate understanding of what the characters would and would not do in terms of expressing themselves. We decreased the size of our footprint, we changed the camera men and women to people who were more intimately involved with the families. Particularly younger males with the kids because increasingly they began to rebel against us being in the room. We continually had to develop a trusting relationship with the cast and the crew, even with our editors. That’s the difficulty with making this kind of film. There are so many places where it could fall apart.
Filmmaker: At what point in the process did you began to cut and at what point did you find yourselves at a place where the overall shape of the thing began to emerge?
Stephenson: It was dependent on funding. If we’d had our way we would have edited throughout, but it happened in phases. We had an assembly we did when the boys were in fourth grade. The girls were even involved in that cut. We had a moment of panic and realized that we had to change something. We didn’t edit again for years. We knew we needed to fundraise, cut specific scenes to make a package and get support. We didn’t really work to get funding that was consistent until the end of middle school. But we really started in earnest two years before the film was done. That’s when we had someone on full time, at the beginning of 2011. They spent a whole year organizing the footage. We had three editors come in the following year with two top notch observational film editors. They worked full time, from January until that Sundance deadline the following December where we had to make a final cut for the festival. Steve James says about longitudinal documentary that editing is really reediting. It takes a lot of support to do that, to get to a strong, tight piece. You have to give yourself time to change things and experiment with things. It’s the same way with writing, where writing is really rewriting. The story takes shape in the editing. It was two years of full-time work and a lot of fits and starts.
Brewster: We were at 33 hours with a vérité cut in May 2012. We went down to six hours two months later. By the time of our initial submission to Sundance we were at 2:30. We came in at 2:18.
Stephenson: We cut it down for the theatrical cut to 2:15. It was that three-hour cut that was most painful. Cutting down was just a painful process. We wanted our editors to look at and cut together everything we shot as vérité scenes. That’s how we arrived at that 33-hour cut. We also wanted them to be no holds barred with how they portrayed us. We didn’t want them to have any kinds of restrictions in terms of what they felt was appropriate. We could deal with that later. But we didn’t want them to have any reservations. It’s so crucial, to be with an editor who will trust the process.
Brewster: All three of our editors are white. One white male and two white females. This is a story about African-American boys and so it was important for us that we could speak about these boys in the same way. We did a lot of research, if just to understand what our son was going through and what he was facing. We traveled around and interviewed a lot of people and read a lot and we shared all of this with our editors. We watched a lot of movies together. There was one especially spirited screening of Hoop Dreams, I recall. We drank a lot of wine. [laughs]
Filmmaker: Have you shown the film at The Dalton School or at Benjamin Banneker Academy?
Brewster: We’ve shown the film at 30 or 40 educational settings across the United States, from Dalton and schools like Dalton to Texas, San Francisco, at least 10 different states, parochial and public. This is where we get our strongest responses. At Dalton we had a standing ovation from everybody. They thanked us. There were some reservations from the Dalton community and administration, but they have embraced the film and are using it as a teaching tool for the students, teachers and parents.