An American Promise worth keeping

PBS premieres a documentary 13 years in the making.

Posted by Danny Olda on Fri, Feb 7, 2014 at 9:30 AM

BEST FRIENDS: Idris and Sean. - POV
  • POV
  • BEST FRIENDS: Idris and Sean.
The scope is huge. It would nearly be overwhelming if it wasn’t so emotionally engaging. This week PBS premieres a documentary 13 years in the making.

American Promise
, the latest film in the award-winning POV series, follows the lives of two African-American boys as they enter kindergarten through their graduation from high school.

Idris and Seun are best friends, each from middle class families living in Brooklyn. When both children are admitted to the Upper East Side’s Dalton School — one of the nation’s most prestigious private schools —  Idris’ parents decide to begin filming the journey. Quickly the Dalton School provides opportunities as well as challenges for the two friends.

As some of the only black children in their grade, the boys are soon contending with issues of cultural and racial identity. Stacey, Seun’s mother, relates a heartbreaking episode in which she finds her young son vigorously brushing his teeth to the point of bleeding. Young Seun explains that he is trying to “brush the color out of his gums.” In another portion of the film the elementary school aged Idris admits to being teased by teammates on his basketball team for “talking white." 

The boys continue to work through the demanding workload of the private school which also crops up some perhaps less expected concerns such as class and gender gaps. Well intentioned support, at times, further marginalizes the boys as the two strive to forge personal identities.

The documentary is intensely personal capturing the intimate pain and accomplishment of boys growing into young men, of parents struggling to raise successful black men in the twenty-first century. It investigates the meaning of success in America and what it takes to achieve it. However, American Promise is also a wider profile of the black male educational achievement gap. The documentary is at times a painful indictment and real-life example of the gap’s still wide existence. Yet, American Promise also offers hope of the achievement gap’s eventual closure through hard work and support - a civil rights cause for a new generation.

American Promise premieres locally on PBS station WEDU and can be viewed in its entirety online through March 5 at  

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