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Spanning 12 years in the lives of two families, AMERICAN PROMISE provides a rare look into black middle class life while exploring the common hopes and hurdles of parents navigating their children's educational journeys.

The film begins in 1999, when filmmakers Joe Brewster and Michéle Stephenson turn their cameras on their son Idris and his best friend Seun as they enter kindergarten at the Dalton School, one of the country's most prestigious private educational institutions. Together, the two families learn that opportunity is just the first step toward academic success. Over the years, the boys struggle with stereotypes, identity, and perception, both inside and outside the classroom. They ultimately take divergent paths on the road to graduation — one remains at Dalton while the other attends the Benjamin Banneker Academy, a predominantly black public school with an Afro-centric curriculum. Meanwhile, the parents wrestle with the same doubts and angst over their sons' futures, as they juggle their high expectations with the cultural and social obstacles that their sons face.

AMERICAN PROMISE is not just a coming-of-age tale about black male achievement; it is a universal story about parental hopes and expectations. Through the intimate experiences of these two families, the documentary reveals complicated truths about parenting, while calling into question commonly held assumptions about educational access in the 21st century.

Ultimately, the film reveals that not all children and families get the same chance to succeed — asking the question of each of us: what is the American Promise?


Learn more about AMERICAN PROMISE and connect with the film:

See the Film

The Filmmakers

Michéle Stephenson Director/Producer

Michéle Stephenson is the co-producer and co-director of AMERICAN PROMISE. A graduate of McGill University and Columbia University School of Law, Stephenson uses her background in critical race studies, and human rights to inform her documentary work. Her Panamanian and Haitian heritage has also fueled her passion to tackle stories on communities of color and social justice. An early pioneer in the Web 2.0 revolution, Stephenson used video and the internet to structure human rights campaigns and train people from across the globe in video internet advocacy. Her work has appeared on PBS, Showtime, MTV and other outlets. Stephenson's honors include: Sundance Special Jury Award in Filmmaking, Silverdocs International Documentary Film Festival Diversity Award; and the Henry Hampton Award for Excellence in Film and Digital Media. In 2013, American Promise won the US Documentary Special Jury Award for Achievement in Filmmaking at the Sundance Film Festival and Full Frame Festival's top-prize — the Reva and David Logan Grand Jury Award for feature-length documentary.

Joe Brewster Director/Producer

Joe Brewster is the co-producer and co-director of AMERICAN PROMISE. He has produced and directed award winning feature documentaries and narrative films. Brewster is a Harvard/Stanford educated psychiatrist who specialized in organizational analysis, which is the use of psychoanalytical principals to understand and improve organizations. He traveled to New York City to pursue media studies in the service of social change. In 1992, Brewster sold his first screenplay to the Jackson-McHenry group under the Warner Brothers imprint. In 1996 Brewster wrote and directed The Keeper, which was an official selection in the dramatic narrative competition section of the Sundance Film Festival and garnered numerous national and international awards including a Spirit Award nomination.


December 31, 1969

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Festivals & Awards

Sundance Film Festival 2013

Winner - Special Jury Award, U.S. Documentary

+ Festival Website

Full Frame Documentary Film Festival 2013

Winner - Grand Jury Award

New York Film Festival

Official Selection


A hard-edged and inspiring account on how African American males can attain academic success.”

-The Hollywood Reporter

Riveting... an intimate look at what it's like to be young, black and male in a largely white private school.”


Brewster and Stephenson’s film is destined to be a classic of the genre — an engrossing exploration of race, education, and expectations featuring strong, personable characters who the viewer feels connected to immediately.”

-Documentary Channel


-Washington Post

An extraordinary documentary about race, family and education that's at once epic and intimate.”


Black boys in America are in crisis right now – particularly academically. The issues they are facing are bigger than public vs. private school. AMERICAN PROMISE holds a magnifying glass to the filmmakers’ son and his best friend to really explore the unique factors that they face as middle-class black boys coming of age at home, at school and in their community. American Promise has been an important tool in encouraging all educational institutions to critically examine their approach with young men of color. The filmmakers have brought the film around the country with their Advance the Promise tour, and they continue to forge partnerships with organizations working in the area of Black Male Achievement. Learn more about the film's comprehensive outreach and audience engagement campaign here:

In 2015, Britdoc honored AMERICAN PROMISE with its Doc Impact Award, which celebrates the documentaries that have made the greatest impact on society. To learn more about the film's impact, expore its Doc Impact Award page:

Outreach Resources

The Promise Tracker

The Promise Tracker is a mobile app to support parents and caregivers of African-American boys. 

+ Promise Tracker

Promise Clubs

The filmmakers created Promise Clubs to empower parents so that they can empower their own children to achieve success—academically, socially, and emotionally.



GreatSchools uses the internet to engage parents in their child’s education. The national nonprofit maintains a website where parents can obtain information on issues related to finding schools, developing educated related parenting skills and accessing community resources


Coalition of Schools Educating Boys of Color

The mission of the Coalition of Schools Educating Boys of Color (COSEBOC) is to connect, inspire, support and strengthen school leaders dedicated to the social, emotional and academic development of boys and young men of color.


Mocha Moms

Mocha Moms, a support group for mothers of color who have chosen not to work full-time outside the home, believes that education is the key to the success for all children, in particular children of color.