Brief Tender Light offers a half-baked reflection on American higher education for international students

Following four different African students through MIT, covers the documentary basics but spreads the film too thin

Brief Tender Light
Directed by Arthur Musah
Screenplay by Arthur Musah and Kelly Creedon
Starring Philip Abel Adama, Fidelis Chimombe, Billy Ndengeyingoma, and Sante T. Nyambo Movies only: NR. Playing on PBS POV January 2024.

As higher education increasingly becomes a prerequisite for jobs, upward mobility, and the “American dream,” it’s no wonder that documentaries about college have proliferated, from 2019’s Unlikely to 2021’s Accepted. With this summer’s dual Supreme Court decisions in SFFA v. Harvard and SFFA v. UNC, the payoff of a college diploma is more deserving of a critical artistic lens than ever.

Arthur Musah’s new documentary Brief Tender Light attempts to rise to this occasion. The film, which had its Boston premiere at the Arlington International Film Festival last week, will be making its New York premiere at Urbanworld Film Festival in November and a national broadcast TV premiere on the PBS series POV on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in 2024. 

The movie introduces us to four students as they are accepted to MIT in the early 2010s. Like director Musah, who is Ghanaian and received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from MIT a decade prior, each of the four is African: Fidelis, from Zimbabwe; Philip, from Nigeria; Billy, from Rwanda; and Sante, the only woman, from Tanzania. Each has been saddled with the hopes, dreams, and mile-high expectations of family and friends in their respective homes, whether to overcome the productivity loss of the Rwandan genocide or to finance the construction of a never-finished school building. 

The bulk of the film is a somewhat rote journey through the joys and struggles of college, augmented with the particular trials and tribulations of international, African students. Don’t get me wrong — each of the protagonists is great, and it’s a pleasure watching them grow up and mature as they face some real difficulties. Philip is bothered when he’s the only student in an orientation event to have grown up poor. Sante fails a physics class and questions whether she’s meant to be at MIT at all. Billy, overloaded with student government and his classes, breaks an architectural model late at night. Fidelis, a devout Christian, takes a solo trip to the beach to reflect on feeling more distant from God. They all banter over a meal about classmates’ inappropriate reactions to learning they’re “from Africa?!” Each comes out the other side stronger, more thoughtful, and more ready to tackle life’s challenges; Philip and Sante, the meekest two at the start, have especially rewarding journeys towards self-confidence. 

But the way their stories are told feels like going through the documentary motions framed by an unmemorable score and mediocre B-reel shots of campus and Cambridge. In 90 minutes, focusing on four students spreads the plot for each too thin: we aren’t able to learn what each student is doing in a given internship or keep up with all through finals week, so while we see them all walk at graduation, we do so without a full appreciation of their individual stories. By that same token, Musah sometimes selectively decides to delve into one student’s story at a time and the double-clicks can feel confusing or distracting. For instance, after their first year, Philip is selected to teach at a robotics program in Nigeria and Sante lives and works with a mentor in Boston, but we never learn what the other two spend the summers doing. When Billy goes home to Rwanda, we’re treated to a somber, clunky overview of the Rwandan genocide; when Fidelis tries to raise funds for a school in Zimbabwe, there’s a noncommittal handling of the principal asking for a bribe.

In line with these narrative and structural shortcomings, the most frustrating aspect of the film is Musah’s voice-over. Brief Tender Light is transparently a vessel through which he is exploring his own journey through school, path into adulthood (from Texas Instrument engineer to USC MFA-pedigreed filmmaker), and significant personal guilt over not doing right by his native Ghana. He makes this clear through heavy-handed monologuing interspersed throughout the movie; in one particularly sigh-inducing line, he muses, “If time is a tool, who’s wielding it?” Similar reflections on his journey coming out to his family or his struggles at MIT are clearly important to Musah himself, but don’t offer much in the way of insightful perspectives to the audience. 

A final gripe: Musah and the film’s marketing often refer to the “decade-long” documentary, but the only substantive part of the movie takes place during the students’ four college years. The rest of the “decade” is told only in intertitles and brief interviews offering short summative professional and personal updates in the last ten minutes of runtime. We lose the relative thoughtfulness and intimacy of the rest of the film, as Musah rushes towards the end and misses the opportunity to delve into the post-college decisions of his protagonists. An intertitle about the end of Robert Mugabe’s dictatorship set above the Charles River feels particularly awkward and misplaced alongside updates about the students’ lives.

As a current MIT student, familiar touchstones were enjoyable: shots of the Infinite Corridor, brass rats adorning the protagonists’ fingers. But those small excitements aside, I was left wanting a more thoughtful, in-depth reflection on what makes MIT (or elite education in the US more broadly) great, and where it can and must improve.