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.