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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:

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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.

Festivals & Awards

News & Documentary Emmy Awards


Nominee - Best Documentary

Nominee - Best News Coverage of a Contemporary Issue

Nominee - Outstanding Individual Achievement in a Craft: Editing Documentary and Long Form

Sundance Film Festival


Winner - Special Jury Award, U.S. Documentary

Full Frame Documentary Film Festival


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.”