The creative team, and family, behind the film American Promise (from left): Joe Brewster, Idris Brewster, Miles Brewster, and  Michèle Stephenson.

Framing the Issue

An HMS alumnus tackles social topics in his films and his practice

A young man lies on his back, an arm slung over his eyes, as he talks about what’s bothering him. He’s having trouble concentrating on homework. The basketball coach knocked him back to junior varsity. He’s still not sure he fits in, as an African American teen, at the prestigious, historically white private school he attends in New York City.

Joe Brewster, Jr. ’78 shot this scene involving his son Idris during the 13 years he was gathering material for the 2013 documentary American Promise, which Brewster directed and produced. The film is one of eight works that Brewster and his wife Michèle Stephenson have completed for Rada Film Group, the production company they cofounded. Their films tackle topics ranging from post-traumatic stress (The Killing Zone) to racial issues in education (American Promise).

Brewster says his psychiatric training helps him develop complex characters whose willingness to share “difficult, uncomfortable stuff” brings them—and, Brewster hopes, audiences—to an epiphany that inspires change.

Since adolescence, Brewster has felt compelled to address social issues. A Los Angeles native, at age 12 he wrote Walt Disney, asking him to feature more African Americans in his movies. Later, at HMS, Brewster found a model for his media vision: Alvin Poussaint.

“Dr. Poussaint was on television and was featured in magazines and books in my home. Part of the way he made a difference was through the media,” says Brewster. “It dawned on me that documentary filmmaking was one way I could reach people and, perhaps, change their lives.”

Brewster financed his dream by fixing up old houses with friends while he was completing his residency at McLean Hospital. After a year as an HMS clinical professor at McLean, he enrolled at The New School in New York with the aim of writing and producing films.

His first feature film, The Keeper(1996), a story of prison life, taught him the power of narrative.

“People were mesmerized by the way the prisoners and correctional officers spoke to one another, about their relationships, their vulnerabilities, and their similarities,” he recalls.

Brewster says he’s learned that being a successful psychiatrist and filmmaker depends on establishing trust with patients, actors, and audience.

“It’s counterintuitive to share. It’s like skiing: When you’re going down a hill, you want to hold back to slow down, but great skiers lean forward,” he says. “The therapeutic process involves teaching your patients to lean forward to control their lives.”

“We had to learn to lean forward in American Promise,” he adds. The documentary offers candid and, at times, unflattering depictions of Brewster, Stephenson, and their son. That level of honesty, however, proved transformative for the family, their community, and the school Idris attended. It was also powerful enough to earn the film the 2013 Special Jury Award for Achievement in Filmmaking from the Sundance Institute, which, in turn, led to its broadcast on PBS’s POVseries.

Almost 40 years after he applied to HMS, Brewster continues to stretch toward his goal of changing the world—from each patient he sees in his New York City practice to each “therapeutic community” he inspires with his films.