BIFF 2014 - American Promise - Cinema Review

'The picture that emerges of Seun and Idriss feels warm, occasionally tragic, but most of all well managed, condensing several years into one-hundred and forty minutes.'

Following their son, Idriss, throughout his entire school life, parent directors Joe Brewster and Michelle Stephenson pitch American Promise as a look at how the education system functions for young black children. Weaving Idriss' story with his friend Seun, Brewster and Stephenson tell an interesting story, which takes into account differing approaches to segregation, each child's relative achievement levels and the challenges they must overcome along the way.

Part cathartic home video, part chronicle, part societal examination, American Promise works better on some levels when compared to others. The picture that emerges of Seun and Idriss feels warm, occasionally tragic, but most of all well managed, condensing several years into one-hundred and forty minutes. It's at its best when it is just depicting two individual experiences of education: how it worked and operated for Seun and Idriss, as people and characters at the heart of the American Promise narrative. I can see some being unwilling to watch a film essentially about the director's child growing up, but for me this held enough interest.

It's on less certain ground though whenever anyone attempts to draw a conclusion or come to some understanding about whether Seun and Idriss' story has wider relevance. During their first experience of education - a mainly white private school in Brooklyn - it is hinted that Seun and Idriss are singled out for extra tuition because they are Black, something which no one ever seems to follow up. Similarly, later in the film, it is revealed that Idriss has ADHD and that Seun is dyslexic, though no-one ever returns to the early schooling to examine whether they were treated correctly with this retrospective diagnosis or not, or whether there were opportunities missed to make an earlier diagnosis of their respective conditions.

As their routes to College diverge there seems to be opportunity to question whether Seun or Idriss has gone down the 'better' course, and what impact their differing pursuits and education styles had on the outcome. Brewster and Stephenson never do though, instead slipping further into the storytelling, rather than the analysis. This benefits American Promise as character piece, but leaves it somewhat open to question as its supposed pitch of 'Documentary With Something To Say'.

Where it does succeed in going further than just Idriss and Seun is in some of the generalities. It is very obvious that a pervading black vs white approach still exists, with several people, including the two children themselves, discussing their education and place in life on such terms. It just feels like a missed opportunity to go this far and not to come down with a judgement on how, why or if the education system is failing black children, especially given the lengths taken to capture this amount of material.

The 20th Bradford International Film Festival runs from 27th March to 6th April 2014, with Widescreen Weekend taking place between 10th and 13th April. It is based at The National Media Museum, in the centre of Bradford.

By Sam Turner. Sam is editor of Film Intel, and can usually be found behind a keyboard with a cup of tea. He likes entertaining films and dislikes the other kind. He's on , Twitter and several places even he doesn't yet know about.


  1. Saw this show up on Netflix, might give it a watch

    1. Worth giving it 40 minutes or so. There's no great change in it or conclusion so my recommendation would be to see how you feel about it after that long.