PODCAST PREVIEW: American Promise filmmakers: “You lose audiences” when you preach

Imagine you are a filmmaker and documentarian who aims to make pictures with powerful themes.

Imagine you are also a parent with strong views about education, and you are a person of color with even stronger views about how race plays a giant role in education.

Imagine you decide to make a documentary that explores this topic.

Imagine you do so by putting a microphone on your son, as well as his best friend, and following the two boys through their schooling … for 13 years.

Imagine you finish this task by receiving various grants throughout the year and launching a successful Kickstarter campaign to pay for an editor and original score composer.

After all that, imagine finally sitting down to edit the documentary — this collage of experiences that are both personal and powerful, and from which you have developed major conclusions about life, race, and parenting — and having to keep so much to yourself.

Such was the challenge for Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson, the parents and filmmakers behind American Promise. The documentary is currently in select theaters in 35 cities, and it will air as part of PBS’s POV series in February 2014.

In the film, Brewster and Stephenson follow their son Idris and his best friend Seun from kindergarten to graduation. The young boys start their educational experiences at prestigious (and mostly white) collegiate prep school Dalton on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Only one completes his education at Dalton; the parallels between Idris and Seun as they grow are simply fascinating.

In fact, the whole documentary is fascinating. Brewster and Stephenson present a complex and layered portrait of all the aforementioned topics — race, parenting, child psychology, the meaning of success — without generally making their own opinions too obvious.

Brewster and Stephenson join me on this episode of the Telling The Story podcast.

In this preview, Stephenson explains why her husband and she chose to present their documentary in a cinéma vérité style, letting the scenes speak for themselves.


Come back to tellingthestoryblog.com Thursday morning to hear my full podcast with Brewster and Stephenson. And subscribe to the podcast – and rate and review it – on iTunes!

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Matt Pearl is the author of the Telling the Story blog and podcast. Feel free to comment below or e-mail Matt at matt@tellingthestoryblog.com.

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