When asked what the title of her 2013 documentary, “American Promise” meant, filmmaker and human rights activist, Michèle Stephenson, responded that it was synonymous to the “American struggle.” When asked the same question in an interview with “Shadow and Act,” an online collective of writers, filmmakers, film enthusiasts and film critics dedicated to the discussion of cinema of the African Diaspora, she replied that this promise could be looked at through a number of lenses. The lens could be the promise of the parents to provide for their son, the promise of society to families or the promise the boys make to themselves.
By placing the film within the American context, the filmmakers hoped to break through stereotypes of black issues and expose them instead as American issues. The title could also have a variety of other meanings, depending on the experiences and backgrounds of the audience. To me, the title signifies the promise of the glorious American Dream, a seemingly elusive dream that was passed down from my immigrant parents, who have never stopped hoping that I might have more than they had and know more than they knew. To others, maybe it was the promise the school made to students or even the promise of a better future that all parents have for their children. In a way, this last one coincides a lot with my understanding of the word “promise” and the American Dream: that your children will live a better life, be more knowledgeable, have security and most importantly, be happier.
On September 16, Stephenson came to Colgate to introduce her documentary at a film screening organized by ALANA ambassador Antoinette Nwabunnia. Stephenson and husband Joe Brewster followed the lives of their son, Idris, and his best friend, Seun, for 13 years as they made their way through one of the most prestigious and predominantly white schools in New York City. The documentary served to bring up issues of race and diversity not unlike those in our own racial climate here at Colgate; in fact, many turning points for Idris and Seun are similar to experiences on campus. Both the Dalton School, the private school that the boys attend, and Colgate are predominantly white, prestigious institutions tasked with tackling the issues of race and diversity, issues complicated by ignorance manifested in everyday microaggressions.
Stephenson and Brewster did a great job of isolating the racial aspect of the boys’ lives to showcase those struggles, but the absence of intersectionality limited the sphere in which the movie could operate.
The film did not seem to touch upon the issues of class or gender. Idris’ family and maybe even Seun’s seemed to be middle-class. However, the only person the audience has to compare to Idris is Seun, another boy of similar background. This very same knot is at the core of whatever tension there is on campus, whether it’s an issue of race, an issue of class or a mix of both. The nature of this struggle is kept under wraps, furtively discussed among the few who are aware and condescendingly spat among those who don’t take the time to learn.
No one wants to be told that they are privileged, to be forced to admit that circumstances are unequal and the playing field is not even or to be enlightened of the fact that the liberation of one is tied to the liberation of the other. While it has to be done and should be done, in doing so, the illusion of meritocracy is dashed and the cycle of dominance is confirmed. The implications of these are two-fold: the American Dream or promise is that much more fragile and difficult to reach, and confirming the cycle of dominance means that it exists. Trying to solve a problem that not all believe is a problem will prove to be useless for all; discussion and engagement cannot be furthered if the existence of these inequalities
The film was great and did generate some good discussion, but nothing sustainable from what I’ve seen since. When the Love Auditorium doors opened, the discussion on race ended. Students went back to their lives, and all lessons learned from the film were gone. We need to keep those discussions alive if we ever want a more diverse, safe and open space for students. Hopefully as people become more comfortable with the fact that America is not a true meritocracy, we can begin to have these conversations about how race, class and gender intersect and affect our society.