By Vítězslav Chovanec
Documentaries depicting the passage of time are a very special subgenre with their own features and difficulties. Narrative develops itself automatically, bringing moments you would never ordinarily think about. At the same time the author is not in a position, where s/he can really control the way it’s going and s/he must deal with a huge amount of material. The final film is as unpredictable as the footage itself. American Promise is more than a promising contribition to this genre.
Idris and Seun, two friends from black middle-class families, are accepted to the very prestigious Dalton School, a preparatory college in New York’s Upper East Side. It is a huge opportunity to develop themselves, go to university and be successful in their adulthood. This 13-year long road to university was shot by Idris’ parents, Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson. Following their studies, the film is a multi-layered essay about race struggle, growing up and parenting in contemporary society.
In European cinema these passage-of-time documentaries often explore a single story on a big historical background with political changes. It is not the same with American cinema. We almost can’t see the difference in milieu between the beginning and end of the movie. Parents are saying that it is probably less difficult for black children nowadays to make up with their white schoolmates. But Idris and Seun don’t really confirm this thesis.
Race issue is most visible in American Promise in terms of conflicts and dialogues, but an even more powerful story behind it explores struggles with parenting. Children need to deal with big expectations from parents, who put pressure on their academic performance. The studies are very challenging for young kids and also very time consuming. Despite their early success, they are not very happy in demanding educational system.
Parents’ love can be sometimes destructive, if there are no limits to their care. The idea of a successful life forces the children to be competitive, always productive and very individualistic. Idris and Seun’s childhood suffers a very strict regime, set up by school and parents. Yet there is also another element in their lives – always present cameramen. It is an art to survive your childhood in such conditions without any psychological repercussions.
Seun is soon no longer motivated to study and is expelled from the Dalton School. His story is divided from Idris’s, after which we watch them separately. Idris is very sensitive, clever and talented while Seun is more physically gifted. After his new start in public school he can find his confidence once again. The documentary hints towards a happy ending, but life is not always a Hollywood story.
The death of Seun’s little brother comes suddenly, like a flash from sky. Everything what happens in two hours before seems now low and unimportant. After this big slap the movie falls into a kind of spiritual mode you would never expected. Life goes on.
American Promise is an observational documentary with only a few interventions from the cinematographer/interviewer. The camera is mostly a fly on the wall, ever present but with respectful distance. This voyeuristic safety is sometimes shut down by straight looks to the camera. The viewer is still aware the camera is there. But people within the film forget they are being filmed, so we can see very emotional and powerful moments emerging from complicated relationships between children and their parents.
It can seem easy to make film like this one. You can take your camera and shoot just how life is going. But a movie always has different rules to reality and after years of shooting you can find yourself with nothing. American Promise is well aware of such difficulties, and could influence younger or future documentarians seeking new stories and non-traditional styles of moviemaking.