Sundance: ‘American Promise’ offered filmmakers unusual access — to their son
Sundance • The film chronicles two Brooklyn boys over 12 years.
Published: January 24, 2013 11:22AM
Updated: January 25, 2013 11:57AM
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Idris Brewster, left, and Seun Summers, two friends whose lives from kindergarten through 12th grade are chronicled in "American Promise." The film debuts in the U.S. Documentary competition of the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. Michele Stephenson | Courtesy Sundance Institute

Few people wait longer to star in a Sundance film than Idris Brewster. It’s been 13 years since his parents, Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson, began filming the documentary that turned into “American Promise.”

“From when I can first remember, I had a camera around me. So I don’t think I had a choice,” Idris Brewster said.

Shot over 12 years, “American Promise” follows Idris and his best friend, Oluwaseun “Seun” Summers — a couple of Brooklyn kids — as they attended the prestigious, historically white Dalton School on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Gifted students, Idris and Seun soon faced new challenges, as did their parents.

Joe Brewster, a Harvard- and Stanford-trained psychiatrist, and his wife, Michèle Stephenson, a Columbia Law School graduate and filmmaker, began working on the project in 1999. It’s about growing up, as well as class, gender and generational issues, with a particular focus on African-American boys. “I think when we started, we didn’t really know what this journey was going to be,” Stephenson said.

And they didn’t really begin to decide when they began the editing process, about a decade after they began filming. They had acquired 800 hours of footage, and the first draft of the film came in at about 32 hours. Now it screens at 142 minutes.

The filming took place over a dozen years, but sporadically. “It’s not like we had the camera on [on] a consistent or constant basis,” she said. “It was a very structured thing and as discreet as possible.”

But not always discreet enough for her son once he hit high school.“I didn’t want to be that kid with the camera following me around,” Idris Brewster said. “But now, in retrospect, I’m really glad. And I’m coming to terms with people knowing me from the movie, and I’m ready to enjoy it.”

This isn’t a look back through rose-colored glasses. Joe Brewster and Stephenson aren’t perfect parents, and the film reflects that.

“There were times when we were looking at the footage and wondering, ‘Did I really say that to my son?’ ” Joe Brewster said. “And then to have the editors tell you that you need to improve on your parenting skills, that was a bit much.”

According to Idris Brewster, a lot was expected of him by his parents and the Dalton School. “My parents have always been hard on me, so I was sort of used to it,” he said. “But there were a lot of sobering moments where it was just hard and I didn’t want to do it anymore. But I stuck with it.”

It couldn’t have been easy when your father “went into this process thinking that our son would graduate summa and become president of the United States of America,” Joe Brewster said. “And only after a number of years into the process we began to tamp down on our expectations.”

Brewster’s and Stephenson’s feature film “The Keeper” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 1996, and they’re elated to be back with “American Promise.” They rented a house, and about 20 people who participated in the film in one form or another are joining them to celebrate. “It’s really a validation of this long process, and we are just beside ourselves with this opportunity,” Stephenson said.

spierce@sltrib.com

‘American Promise’

P The documentary screens today at 2:45 p.m. at Broadway Center Cinema 6, Salt Lake City; Friday at 11:15 a.m. at the MARC, Park City; and Saturday at 3 p.m. at the Yarrow Hotel Theatre, Park City.

The documentary will air either later this year or in early 2014 on PBS’s “P.O.V.”