“I hope times have changed”
Before Boyhood began its eleven-year gestation as a fictionalized document of a real life coming-of-age journey in America, multiple documentary projects were born in the same vein. The Up Series started in 1964, Doug Block‘s The Kids Grow Up used home video from as far back as the 90s to give context to his daughter’s graduation, and American Promise‘s cameras commenced rolling in 2000 on two five-year old African American boys about to step into the high-pressure environment of Brooklyn-based K-12 independently-operated and predominantly white The Dalton School. The latter is probably the closest kin to Richard Linklater‘s work in scope, it’s focus centering on contemporary education and stringent adolescent expectations rather than an emotion-heavy journey of a free-spirited rebel. One manufactured drama, the other merely captured it.
And while Boyhood proves to be more memorable in its ability to engage and resonate through its faux authenticity, American Promise will forever be the more intriguing option in its documentation of real joy and tragedy on behalf of Idris Brewster and Seun Summers—two boys caught beneath a microscope 24/7 in relation to the film (directed by the former’s parents Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson) and their very existence as autonomous creatures attempting to find an identity. We watch their struggle for acceptance in the white-centric academic sphere and black-centric social sphere of youth; their struggle to excel in a limelight thrust upon them by their parents; and their struggle to wrestle away some semblance of freedom within a regimented and perhaps naively planned rubric for success.
Despite the boys being at its core, however, the film ultimately becomes a document of how little control we have over anything. Nature and nurture steer us towards goals and hinder their achievement, but they’re only two factors of many. We can applaud these families for putting their children first to give them a better education then they had, but we can also chide them for assuming their boys would have the same drive they did. Stephenson is on-camera putting her disappointment in words that speak about her troubled youth and her initiative to do whatever she needed to escape it. She wonders why Idris doesn’t have that same fierce fire, blind to the fact that she and Joe gave him a childhood wherein “escape” wasn’t an imperative.
You can place these kids in a great school because they have the potential to succeed, but the journey won’t simply occur on autopilot. There’s more to growing up than one’s education through books. You cannot dismiss your child as weak when you’ve done everything possible to remove conflict from his/her life. Your public school experience may have been a nightmare, but it shaped the adult you became. Your son’s private school experience will therefore have a completely different effect. He will suddenly be the “other” academically due to skin color and socially due to education. Classmates will stereotype him as “black” while neighborhood kids will stereotype him as “white”. The resulting pressure won’t be the same as you remember, but it will be just as psychologically crippling.
Brewster and Stephenson were lucky—a word I hate using since it’s at the detriment of one of the boys—because they were afforded the luxury of seeing their subjects move down two paths. Neither kid truly excels in the environment their parents picked for them, but one does continue down the Dalton path through high school and onto college. The other falters, however, his academic grades resulting in his having to leave for public education after middle school (albeit towards one of the highest rated public high schools in the city). So we get to see these parallel lives experiencing similar problems in different ways. We see how an environment’s success isn’t perfect for every kid, a generically great setting in abstract proving specifically horrible for you.
And while Idris and Seun are shown to be very much alike in how everything weighs them down, their parents aren’t. Both couples are hard on their sons, but in different ways. Seun is allowed to pretend he has control (despite knowing it’s a lie) while Idris is stripped of it in plain sight. The former pushes back by losing interest and motivation, his lack of happiness resulting in a lack of focus. The latter pushes back by trying to prove his parents wrong, their constant criticism becoming a challenge rather than a constructive way forward. There’s even the discovery of learning disabilities and how one family deals with it head-on as the other questions it as though admitting the issue would be a failure on their part.
So credit the filmmakers for leaving their own errors of judgment in. This project could have easily been made into one that shines them in a more heroic light than they have perhaps earned in as far as their constant expression of disappointment. It’s intriguing to watch Idris and Seun’s parents chastise the school for failing these boys (and they do considering one teacher wonders why black males have a high failure rate at Dalton without acknowledging the teachers are the single constant in the equation) by holding them to standards they’re aware could be met with a little extra help only to then practice that same mentality at home. Some aspects need constant vigilance and others need room to breathe. Nobody onscreen figures out which is which.
That’s why it’s able to resonate on so many levels. No one is perfect. No one’s life is pristine. The parents are just as clueless about this situation as their children because it’s new to them all. Sometimes disadvantages propel us to great heights and advantages breed complacency. There’s a fine line between these truths, one that must be acknowledged by everyone involved. Maybe Dalton wasn’t the right fit for these boys because it wasn’t the right fit for the parents. Maybe the parents treat their sons too much like they wanted to be treated rather than how their sons needed to be treated for their success. This isn’t an exact science and accomplishments should never be dismissed simply because the expectations of that victory weren’t quite met.
So when one achieves college despite everybody thinking it was out of reach due to uncontrollably difficult circumstances, we smile. When the other achieves college and stands up to his parents to declare those schools that accepted him are not to be treated as inferior to those that didn’t, we smile again. In the end this experiment was supposed to be for the boys and their future. The journey may have been rocky and unpredictable, but the goal was met. The fact that the hopes of their parents were loftier and perhaps unrealistic shouldn’t cloud this achievement. That sense of disappointment is for them to reconcile alone behind closed doors while openly praising their sons for everything they accomplished. Hindsight is twenty-twenty, but victory is also still victory.