‘American Promise’ up for three Emmys

An educational documentary that took nearly 15 years to make has been nominated for three Emmy awards this year.

AmericanPromise_FINAL ART_HiRes_27x39 NYFF

American Promise is being considered for Emmy for Best Documentary, Outstanding Coverage of a Current News Story Long Form, and Outstanding Editing, at the annual News and Documentary Emmy Awards on September 28, at New York City’s Lincoln Center.

It was broadcast on PBS’s POV in February 2014, and “is an intimate and provocative account, recorded over 12 years” of two Black males who attended “a very prestigious White private school on Manhattan’s Upper East Side,” according to the website.

“I am very honored but as a Black filmmaker, we don’t trust the system in which we are going to be judged,” said Joe Brewster in a recent MSR phone interview. He and his wife Michele Stephenson co-produced and directed American Promise. “It’s a big deal to receive these honors but I also understand that the process is not always fair.”

The film’s stars are best friends, Idris Brewster and Oluwasseun (Seun) Summers, Idris’ parents, Brewster and Stephenson; and Stacy and Anthony Summers, Seun’s parents. The film documents the two children from kindergarten in 1999 at one school, then at separate schools after middle school, through high school graduation in 2012.

The Brewster Family
The Brewster Family

American Promise as a result “takes up issues of race, class and opportunity, as well as Black male achievement,” noted a press release.

“We made mistakes along the way,” Brewster explained. “We had to convince two schools, and one of them was the most difficult to convince.  It took the longest period of time…almost 10 years for them to buy into the process.

“They agreed from day one to allow us to shoot, but they didn’t really understand the level of their involvement, and they didn’t understand that the journey that they were embarking on — attempting to diversify the student population and increase the representation of minority boys and girls — was going to be difficult and a challenge.

“I think the school administration realized that the film wasn’t about them.  It’s about the country.  Anything that can be said about Dalton can be said about Wall Street, the criminal justice system, the health care system,” said Brewster.

Since its release, American Promise has been shown by organizations, schools and other groups.

“I think White people had a great difficulty with this film [but] Black people really embraced the film in ways that PBS had not seen previously.  Black groups began to meet and discuss the way their sons, and later their daughters, are treated in the educational system,” noted Brewster, a psychiatrist who moved to New York City in 1985 “to pursue media studies in the service of social change.” He sold his first screenplay in 1992.

“Film is where I wanted to be,” he pointed out. “I moved to New York to study film…filmmaking is like therapy.  You walk into the therapist office and wonder what he is going to ask you and what significance that will have in your life.”

The Summers Family
The Summers Family

Educating Black males is “a big question because the whole notion of education is complicated in how you educate young men and women,” said Brewster. “When you add race into the mix, it gets extremely complicated.  The whole issue of race and implicit bias — when you talk about the social construction of race, and why that is, and how it supports and continues White privilege.”

Blacks don’t need to be “apologetic” to White Privilege and its impact on society, he said. “The reality is that race has to be dealt with. We’ve got to get them to stop talking about us and start talking about them.”

Brewster continued, “Some of our fellow filmmakers are beginning to question the fact that the majority of Black stories are told by Whites. We need to think about the impact of implicit bias and unconscious racism on our entire community.

“The reality is that the system is set up and discriminates against us and then blames us for the natural reactions of that discrimination.  That is something that has to be discussed more,” he said.

Brewster is among the producers of the New York Times’ “Conversation: Race” series. “I’ve made four films. We are going to 24 in the next two years,” said the filmmaker. “I think we will continue making films, and continue telling stories. We want to tell stories about people of color because if I made a million [of films] that wouldn’t be enough.  That’s how big the gap is.

“I think when you are doing something really special in making a documentary, [you are] always pushing the envelope — you are questioning why, and every question results in additional anxiety,” said Brewster. “That’s the power of filmmaking.  That’s why we make film. We’ve been doing it for 25-30 years.”


Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-recorder.com