The Impact Interview Series is a collaboration between WITNESS and BRITDOC, who produce and host the Impact Awards for independent documentaries. Read more about the Award and this year’s five winning films here.

Our series of interviews featuring the filmmaking teams behind the the five winners of the 2014 BritDoc Impact Award for documentaries continues this week with an interview with Michèle Stephenson, co-director of American Promise. Through chronicling the experiences of two African-American boys (one of whom is the directors’ son), American Promise examines the relationship and discussions around race and education in the United States of America. The impact of the film has been widespread with “Promise Clubs,” groups for parents of African American boys, popping up all over the country and the widespread distribution of the film along with additional tools and resources to promote discussion and change.

To read more about the impact of American Promise, check out Britdoc’s Impact Report.

Sarah S. Kerr: What was your process in choosing to tell this specific story about African-American boys and education?

Michèle Stephenson: This story comes from a very personal space and eventually evolved into something even more intimate. Inspired by the work of Michael Apted in his series 7-UP, we started off wanting to tell a story about diversity in education through showcasing experiences growing up from both girls and boys.  When we started in kindergarten, we had 5 subjects all together.  By the 4th grade all the girls in the film ended up dropping out of the documentary project.  We were left with our own son, Idris, and his close friend, Seun, whose family had grown close to us as well.

This was also about the same time that the intensity of the experiences the boys were having at school around low expectations, discipline and motivation began to gain force. As parents we were in the thick of it, trying to figure out how to both keep the expectation bar high while trying to address our son’s social and emotional health with regard to his racial identity, gender and feelings around fitting in.

We also took a leap of faith at that moment as filmmakers.  Our artistic passion and commitment to transparent storytelling intersected with our need to be there as parents. So, we decided to dig deeper and be as honest as we could in front of the camera.  This seemed like the only solution in terms of pushing forward the hard conversations that we all need to have amongst our communities of parents, educators, youth and institutions. By exposing our vulnerabilities and flaws, I think we helped make the conversation on black male achievement more accessible to a larger audience. At the same time we have also made the conversation more necessary and urgent through recognizing that we all have to lean into our discomfort in order to create change for our children.

Idris Brewster and Michèle Stephenson in a scene in American Promise. Photo courtesy of Jon Stuyvesant.
Idris Brewster and Michèle Stephenson in a scene in American Promise. Photo courtesy of Jon Stuyvesant.

How were you thinking about impact during planning and pre-production? Did your thinking around impact evolve throughout the project? If so, how?

Absolutely. Remember, we started this film back in 1999 (in fact, I was still working for WITNESS when we started this project!) and media impact had a slightly different feel back then.  My biggest preoccupation and main focus in the first few years involved wanting to tell the best possible story because we knew that alone would get us far.  My activist background certainly informed some of our story decisions, but we hadn’t thought deeply yet about impact and community engagement.

The beauty of working on a longitudinal film is that it gave us the time to think and plan, and in our case we thought a lot about impact, audience, stakeholders and partnerships. We had a sense that a commonality of experiences existed beyond our family’s story that would resonate, and we felt a duty to use that resonance as an opportunity to build change for parents, educators and youth.  We first knew that the potential for significant impact existed when we started getting calls from random parents around the country who had heard we were making the film. They expressed that they were eager to see it and eager for their family’s story to be told. So, slowly, from middle school years on, we began by talking to experts, then to organizations working in the field of black male achievement and our vision for the campaign began to gel. We fell into full campaign planning mode about three years prior to the end of production.

What impact has the film had since its release? Is there one type of impact that you are most proud of?

We think the impact that warms our heart the most is when we witness that moment of recognition from parents who, all of a sudden, no longer feel isolated and are more empowered to speak up and affect change for their son or daughter. It’s also so powerful for our campaign to be able to have the tools handy and ready for parents to use in their efforts to better advocate for their children.

What has ultimately revealed the extent of our campaign’s impact have been the spontaneous gatherings organized by communities to screen the film, or parents and educators getting together to discuss the book and use other tools without assistance from our end. Our campaign has cast a net so large that people are taking their own initiatives in various corners of the country to both discuss and create support networks to better their children’s educational journey.  That is most gratifying. We have brought a story to the world and now we see the ripple effect with communities beyond our reach taking on the torch.

Seun Summers in American Promise. Photo courtesy of Alfredo Alcantra
Seun Summers in American Promise. Photo courtesy of Alfredo Alcantra

If there is one person that you hope sits down to watch this film today, who would that be? And why? 

Wow!  I am not sure. We just hope the film continues to have a life beyond its current tour and also continues to resonate with parents and families across the country.  More importantly, I hope it continues to be a catalyst for the difficult and often uncomfortable conversations that need to happen across racial lines in order for things improve for all children.

What has been the most common viewer reactions to the film? Have there been any interesting surprise reactions?

I am not sure a “common viewer reaction” exists.  We all come with our own baggage when we sit to watch a documentary, or any type of media. In the case of this film I find the most fascinating aspect of observing people’s reaction is to see how the race of the viewer plays a significant role in how Idris’s and Seun’s experiences are interpreted. When you examine the impact of media, it is so important to understand that the gaze of the viewer is just as important as the gaze of the filmmaker who is telling the story. And as filmmakers invested in impact we must be in tune with who the audience is at a given screening.  If we understand that in advance we can maybe prepare better and achieve deeper impact.

An extreme example of the impact of the viewer’s gaze immediately comes to mind is the video of the the choking of Eric Garner in Staten Island. Reactions to the footage showed how even a compelling piece of media can still be subject to widely different interpretations based on how we unconsciously see or feel about people who are different from ourselves.

One of our editor consultants, an Academy Award winning editor whom we asked to consult on our film, came into the edit room one evening with very few notes on the page. He just sat there and explained to us that with American Promise we had a rorschach test in our hands [an inkblot test used by psychologists to evaluate the mental associations of their patients]– with great potential to move audiences in so many different directions. He couldn’t have been more spot on.  And I believe that’s ultimately what we want to achieve as filmmaker-artists, to provoke thought with our work and allow the audience to explore their own discomfort.

The Brewster-Stephenson family. Photo courtesy of Orrie King
The Brewster-Stephenson family. Photo courtesy of Orrie King

What lessons about impact have you learned from this project that you incorporate into future projects (feel free to mention any future projects in the works)?

Start early — it is never too early to start thinking about impact, or whether you even want to have an impact beyond your viewing audience.  First and foremost we are artist-storytellers with a passion for using the artform to provoke conversations about identity, race and privilege.  That seems to be our calling, and we know that if we always defer to telling the best and most creative story we can, the rest will follow.

At the same time, if we are committed to creating change we have to start early to study and foster the potential connections that our stories have the capacity to create. The symbiotic relationship between impact and storytelling has to be an organic honest and process that is guided and worked on but never forced — because then the story and the art suffer, and your audience will feel the level or lack of sincerity right away.

Ralph Ellison once said: “All novels are about certain minorities: the individual is a minority. The universal in the novel… is reached only through the depiction of the specific man in a specific circumstance.” We believe the same is true for non-fiction visual storytelling. It is by revealing the specific lives of people that we can truly have an impact and make a case for our common humanity. Once we have exposed our vulnerabilities and complexities then the impact work can begin to dig even deeper.  That is the approach we try to take on all of our projects.  Our next documentary, Hispaniola, which takes place in the Dominican Republic, will engage in that same intimate effort to reveal our common humanity and comment on broader social issues through the specificity of our subjects’ lived experiences.

To learn more about American Promise, check out the film’s website or follow them on Twitter at @PromiseFilm.

Featured image courtesy of Michèle Stephenson.

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