American Promise ★★★★½

This film answers a question for me: what distinguishes a great documentary? For me it is illuminating our existence on Earth in a fresh, filmic way. It doesn't have to teach a lesson, it doesn't have to present a thesis. It does even need to be important. Just illuminating and unflaggingly interesting.

American Promise is the meticulously chronicled story of two bright black boys from Brooklyn, Seun and Idris, covering their lives from age 5 to 18. They are both from educated, middle class families...and both start out the film as pals attending on scholarships a prestigious private school, The Dalton Academy. Interestingly, both have disparate learning disabilities that the two families must deal with. The film is directed by Idris's parents, who are unafraid of showing their own involvement as characters in the narrative, warts and all. I don't think we've ever seen the lives of black male children in racially divided America shown in such unsparing detail. Perhaps because the project was started when the boys were very young, they've become totally natural in the presence of the camera (or seemingly natural, anyway...no matter how skilled the editing or cinematography, 13 years of life can't be distilled down to 135 minutes, even choice, incredibly intimate minutes.)

The sum total is a documentary which rivals Michael Apted's Seven-Up films and the An American Family mini-series for an unvarnished and insight filled view of urban family Americana.