What Happens Next: American Promise

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We asked directors Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson to reflect on their experience screening their Special Jury Award-winning, SFFS-supported film American Promise at Sundance.

Joe: This has certainly been a roller-coaster ride for us.  We were accepted into our dream festival and left Park CIty, Utah with an amazing outcome.  We were honored with a special Jury Prize for achievement in documentary filmmaking and we received amazing reviews from the critics.  Yet, there is a cloud of worry looming over my head and I cannot pinpoint why.  It is not the 12 inches of snow outside my Brooklyn doorstep nor the cough I acquired from our nightly Sundance celebrating.  My concern is that our Sundance storybook beginning was just that - a beginning.  What happens next?

Michèle: I guess the concern (or fear) is that this will not continue.  And since returning to Brooklyn we clearly have not been recipients of the same attention and adulation.  We are back to life as parents , soccer practice and PTA meetings.  That’s not a bad thing, because the Sundance pace was unsustainable.  I have Joe's same concerns.  I want my work, 13 years worth of it, to be seen and respected by our peers.  I want to be assured that we will make a difference in how the subject of academic achievement of Black boys is handled. But we can’t guarantee anything.  So, we work, we wait and we worry.

Idris:  That sentiment is pretty typical in this family.  My parents have invested so much time and effort into the making of this film but they can’t even relish this moment.  Well, me, I’m gonna relax and enjoy the moment before I need to get into my mid-term groove.  My parents' dedication to this project has been inspiring to me and I’m proud of them but if someone dropped a shitload of money in their pockets right now, they would still be nervous about tomorrow.

Joe: I’m not sure things are that simple.  We have high expectations and we need to manage them.  The reality is that acceptance to  a festival is just the first step toward the realization of our goals for the film, behavior change.  We are coming to terms that every festival, every newspaper review, every community screening will be a struggle.  I guess this realization is the painful truth of film campaigns, results always require lots of hard work and uncertainty.     

Michèle:   But we had plans and we were prepared for post-Sundance journey. Over the next two years we will take American Promise on the road, hosting community screenings nationwide and partnering with organizations whose mission includes supporting Black males' academic, social and emotional growth.  We are also completing a book, American Promise, scheduled for an October 2013 release (Random House) for parents and other stakeholders aimed at helping to close the academic achievement gap.  We are also supporting an effort to raise $100,000 for  Big Brothers Big Sister's Mentoring Brothers In Action Initiative and enlist 100 new mentors (of any background) for Black males, who have the hardest time finding mentors.  So, if you are reading this blog and you want to reduce Joe’s anxiety level, send $10.00 to Big Brother’s and Big Sisters by text, text BIG1 to 80100.

Joe: Or, you could just send me a note and say keep up the struggle my brother.

Notes from Sundance: American Promise

We asked directors Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson to reflect on their experience screening their Special Jury Award-winning, SFFS-supported film American Promise at Sundance.


So far the Sundance Film Festival has been a whirlwind of activity – from screening our film American Promise, to interacting with audience members, to attending parties, to meeting other filmmakers around the world, to talking with prospective investors. It is a very intense experience and although it is very exciting, it is also exhausting. The audience reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. Many other people have told us they're touched and that the movie has given them a tremendous amount to think about as it relates to race, class, gender, educational opportunity and even parenting.

In the Q&A sessions following the screenings, we're fielding a lot of questions about the boys -- people are clearly rooting for them. Both young men are doing extremely well. Idris just completed his first semester at Occidental College. Like many college freshman he's finding it challenging, but he's growing, learning and starting to stand on his own two feet. Seun told the audience that his freshman experience was "no walk in the park." But he, too, is acclimating to his new environment and doing extremely well. Both the two of us and Seun's parents, Tony and Stacy Summers, are beaming with the knowledge that our sons have overcome tremendous obstacles that we did not anticipate and could not protect them from, and are now doing well in their lives.

People also comment a lot about our bravery, saying that we are exceptionally courageous to expose our family and some of our most difficult parenting days, as we have. We believe that building connections and creating community requires openness. That said, some people feel unsettled by our decision to film our boys. By nature documentaries about people reveal them to the world. The fact that we've exposed our own family puts us in a far better position to protect our son and Seun than the parents of, say, an impoverished child in another country whose story a filmmaker tells are in. If you were to run into either of our young men, he would tell you that he is proud to be part of the film and are grateful to have a role in spreading the word about ending the educational crisis facing Black males. The presence of the cameras made us all into a better people.  

Perhaps most significantly, many people have told us that while they don't want to minimize the issues facing African American boys, watching the movie made them realize that both our family and the Summers’ seem strikingly similar to their own. This is one of the most satisfying pieces of feedback we could possibly receive. Because in making American Promise, we bet on our belief that if we could expose the public to who Black boys really are so that their promise is no longer obscured by stereotypes, distortions, and negative media portrayals and people can actually see their humanity, perhaps the world will fear them less, care about them more, and join us in advocating for their wellbeing.

Be Careful What You Wish For: Prepping for Sundance

We asked directors Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson to reflect on the lead-up to their SFFS-supported film American Promise getting into Sundance. American Promise premieres today at Sundance.


Joe: When we received the phone call from Sundance, we were in the editing room agonizing over how we should end our film.  When the phone rang and we noticed the call was from the Sundance institute, I couldn’t bring myself to pick it up so I handed the phone over to Michèle.  For a moment, it was as if time stood still.  I could hear Michèle say “Hey Shari,” after that, even the sound in my head had been drowned down. I had anticipated this moment for years and the thought of hearing no was now impossible for me to come to terms with, only because of my temporary brain fix.  Suddenly, Michèle went airborne, jumping up and down, pumping her fist in the air.  Then the sound in my mind came back on.  She was screaming the word, “YES!” 

Michèle: Perhaps there was some fist pumping and jumping up and down, I don’t know, I think I was numb with elation.  I called my mother in Quebec to share the good news, she asked, “What film did you get in with?”  She was surprised that a festival as important as Sundance would accept a home movie.  Once all the phone calls to crew members were made the daunting nature of what we had to accomplish by January began to sink in.  Be careful what you wish for.

Joe: Preparing for Sundance has felt like running a marathon every day for thirty days.  We have day jobs and on top of a busy post-production schedule, we are creating a short for NYT Op-Docs and preparing for the Television Critics Association press conference in Pasadena, which just happens to be the same week as the Open of the Sundance Film Festival. We’ve also put preparations for our community engagement campaign into high gear.  The campaign is huge and we are so excited about its potential for change.  So, this means we’re now working on adrenaline and less than 5 hours of sleep a day until February.   

Michèle: We are set on taking advantage of every opportunity that presents itself for the film and our campaign.  And in this day and age of new technologies, that means loads of blogging and social media opportunities to develop a following.   Our engagement campaign is a part of that build up to our premiere screening.  One small piece of that campaign will begin during our film festival tour. It’s unusual to organize a dedicated campaign for a film festival run, so we’re hoping we set a precedent for future documentary films. We came up with this idea because we wanted to harvest any good intention resulting from the screening of the film. Since film festivals draw a general audience, we needed something that anyone could do. 

Joe: So, as we travel the festival circuit, we’re going to ask our audiences to help us raise $100,000 and 100 mentors for Big Brothers Big Sister’s Mentoring Brothers in Action program. The goal of this program is to recruit mentors, particularly men of color, and expand the organization’s capacity to serve more African American boys. We launched the campaign the week after Sundance announced our acceptance. 

Michèle: Idris and Seun are very excited for Sundance; they are eager to represent the film at such a prestigious event – and are certainly more relaxed about it than we are. Although Seun was initially a bit apprehensive about everything, he is getting more and more excited everyday. 

Joe: We decided to prepare the boys for press and interviews, our thought was that we did not want them to became overwhelmed in front of the camera.  That’s when both boys said almost in unison,  “we’ve been in front of a camera for 13 years. What’s another week.”  –  I guess the pressure is really on us.

Sundance 2013 Roundup

Sundance 2013 Roundup

By now, you've probably heard—the official selections are in for Sundance 2013's U.S. and World Cinema Dramatic and Documentary Competitions. Among them are five films that the Film Society has supported through grants and fiscal sponsorships as they've developed into feature-length, fully-formed films:

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