Michèle Stephenson ’95

Action Oriented

Fall 2013

Filmmaker Michèle Stephenson ’95 started shooting the documentary American Promise 13 years ago, when her son Idris began attending the prestigious Dalton School on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Stephenson and her husband, Joe Brewster, turned the camera on their own family to explore how perceived stereotypes surrounding African-American boys can affect academic achievement.

“The challenge is to be as true and transparent as possible, because that’s where the power of the stories can be found,” says Stephenson, a human rights lawyer.

The film documents Idris and another African-American boy as they struggle with issues of race, privilege, and opportunity. It debuted earlier this year and won a U.S. documentary special jury award at the Sundance Film Festival.

Stephenson discovered her passion for filmmaking after her first year of law school. She spent that summer working in Brazil as a Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute intern at a nonprofit organization focused on fighting racial discrimination in that country. During the workday, Stephenson helped draft legislative initiatives. In the evenings and on the weekends, she filmed young progressive artists in the country’s inner-city neighborhoods. Her first short film, We Choose to Rap, focused on feminist rap music in Brazil.

Fast-forward two decades, and Idris is now in college. Early next year, Random House will publish a book that further explores the issues raised in American Promise.

“For me, [filmmaking has been] about figuring out how to maximize the power of storytelling to have some form of impact that effects change,” says Stephenson, “whether on a personal, community, or societal level.”