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Empty promises of racial harmony

Documentary charts struggle for fairness in elite US school

Documentary charts struggle for fairness in elite US school

"I've had a camera on me since I was 5 years old," Seun says. "I just went to school one day and there was this camera on me. It was weird. I mean, who does that?"

Seun (pronounced "Shay-aun") and his classmate Idris are the subjects of a new documentary, American Promise, which will have its British premiere in Bradford next week.

The two-hour film follows the pair over 13 years, from the start of their schooling to their departure for university at the age of 18. Both boys are African American, from the New York City borough of Brooklyn. And, when we first meet them, at the age of 5, they are newly enrolled in The Dalton School, a prestigious private institution in Manhattan.

It was Idris's parents, film-makers Michle Stephenson and Joe Brewster, who decided to make a record of their son's school experience. They are both admirers of the British television series Seven Up!, which has followed a group of children from the age of 7 onwards, and wanted to undertake a similar project. "I think Idris just saw it as something else his parents were doing," Ms Stephenson says. "It was just an extra annoying thing, like asking him to brush his teeth. It was just part of his life."

Initially, the film-makers worked with children from a range of races and socio-economic backgrounds. However, all but Idris and Seun dropped out over the years. "The focus narrowed," Ms Stephenson says. "What started as a documentary of diversity in action turned into the black male experience of education."

Dalton, which sends almost a third of its students to Ivy League universities, wants its student body to reflect the population of New York City. A quarter of its students are non-white. "He will be exposed to so much more than I was exposed to," Seun's mother says in the film. "I want Seun to be comfortable around white folks, because at this point I don't think I'm comfortable around white folks."

As the pair grow up, however, race becomes increasingly important. Seun brushes his gums so hard they begin to bleed; he tells his mother that he is trying to brush the colour off. Idris, meanwhile, is told by neighbourhood children that he talks "like a white boy". They discuss whether or not white girls at school would want to date them. Their self-esteem begins to plummet, as does their progress. "We have this idea, especially with the election of Obama, that race no longer matters," Ms Stephenson says. "What this film shows is that race is still an issue that persists, particularly for African American boys."

The film won critical acclaim after its American premiere last year at the Sundance film festival. Organisers described it as an "epic and groundbreaking documentary, charged with the hope that every child can reach his or her full potential".

But by the time the boys reach high school, Seun's academic performance has slipped to such an extent that he is withdrawn from Dalton and enrolled in his neighbourhood school. "There's a cultural disconnect between independent schools and African-American boys," one of the Dalton teachers says. "Where's the disconnect? What's going wrong? What are we doing in this school that we're not supporting these guys?"

Certainly, there is nothing lacking in the boys' home lives. Their backgrounds are solidly middle-class liberal. Idris is shown helping his mother to make fundraising phone calls for the Obama campaign. When he is 10, his parents put together a homework spreadsheet; when he applies to university, there is a spreadsheet for that, too.

"We'd bought in to the notion that the level of individualised attention at Dalton would counteract any biases that exist in society, about what he is and what he's capable of," Ms Stephenson says. "But, without talking about expectations for these boys - that they're athletically inclined, instead of academically inclined - the problems aren't going to be solved.

"It's not about pointing fingers at who does what wrong, but really about looking at the totality of the village that it takes to raise our sons."

Where to watch it

The UK premiere of American Promise is taking place at the Bradford International Film Festival on 28 March at the National Media Museum.

For more information on the film and educational resources, visit

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