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Heart of Stone

In the olden days, long before Principal Stone's arrival, reports Beth Toni Kruvant's documentary, Weequahic High Scool was indeed a kind of beacon.

Heart of Stone

Director: Beth Toni Kruvant
Cast: Ronald G. Stone, Phil Yourish, Hal Braff,
Rated: NR
Studio: Good Footage Productions
Year: 2008
US date: 2009-07-17 (Limited release)

Heart of Stone begins much like other high school movies. The camera picks up details of the morning routine: students enter the building, their feet passing through metal detectors; a few close shots of trophies and logos indicate as well a certain pride in the sports team, the Indians. In a cut to the principal's office, you see the usual banners and books, a neatly appointed desk, and the man himself, Ronald G. Stone, standing tall. "It was absolutely something that had the greatest impact on me going to Weequahic High School," asserts the voiceover. "This was a school for strivers. It seemed that they had the cream of the world."

Right about now you might expect a soaring soundtrack, further evocation of the nostalgia and pride felt for this Newark, New Jersey institution. Instead, you hear Stone, his voice steady. "As principal," he says, "I have been face to face with guns at least three times in the past three years. And the most recent a little more than a year ago. A young man who was carrying a loaded uzi on a string around his neck, 39 rounds in the clip, one in the chamber." Stone's tone isn't quite matter of fact as he tells this story: he know it's sensational for viewers of Heart of Stone, even if not to him.

In the olden days, long before Stone's arrival, reports Beth Toni Kruvant's documentary, the high school was indeed a kind of beacon. The soundtrack plays "Cheek to Cheek" as footage reveals pleasant-seeming, tree-lined streets. A guide's voice grants access to "Philip Roth's tour of Newark," wherein the Weequahic graduate describes the "Jewish enclave" that supported and was buoyed by the success of Weequahic. In the 1950s, the school produced more PhDs than any other high school in the United States. Students and faculty were motivated by a sense that they were special, if beleaguered, and that "the path out of poverty is education." Stone insists, "My goal is to return Weequahic High School to its glory days."

Today, as the film details, poverty is crushing the community. Students and their parents feel hopeless, gangs are providing alternative structures, and schoolwork seems beside the point, not a way out of anything at all. Stone and the alumni association he works with mean to change that spiral. In search of money and interest within the community, Stone makes himself and his students as visible as he can. That his go-to group of supporters is a group of Jewish graduates gives the film something like appoint of departure, as well as a point that is much remarked on by interviewees. Alumni must serve the "interests of the kids and the interests of the community," sys Hal Braff, founder WHS alumni association. And besides, he adds, giving back is "a very Jewish thing to do." Executive director Phi Yourish agrees: "The most important thing about being a Jew was to be able to give and help other people. That's what a mitzvah was all about." And Sheldon Bross chimes in as well: "You say to yourself, somebody has to do something."

This "something" is more complex than donating money, though that is a large chunk of the relationship between generations and communities that shapes Heart of Stone. As the film briefly charts the neighborhood's history, it's clear that the alumni have their own reasons for wanting to help out, having witnessed racist violence and suffered anti-Semitic abuses when they were younger. Richie Roberts, now a criminal defense attorney, recalls local gangs played a game they called "bag a Jew," whereby they would essentially kidnap and beat up someone they found on the street at night. "Can I curse?" he asks his interviewer. "I feel like cursing. I'm a tough motherfucking Jew, just as tough or tougher than anyone else," he asserts. And yet he's sorry that his toughness was honed by a need to protect himself against bullies and racists. Rabbi Michael Lerner sees in such history a "special affinity to the blacks," which makes it easier to see in today's Newark neighborhoods individuals rather than stereotypes. New Jersey poet Amiri Baraka speaks briefly, noting, "There has never been any closer ties than blacks and Jews in terms of fighting injustice."

And yet for all the narrating and good-working by adults, Heart of Stone is most effective when it turns to the students, some gang members and ex-gang members, who benefit from the alumni association and Principal Stone's efforts. Each student has a compelling story. Rayvon explains, "My mother wasn’t doing what she had to do when I was young. She was taking drugs and whatever, so they split me and my three brothers up. Being my age, people won't want to take me, because I already had my own mind and stuff like that." His own mind helps Raybvon to see how his gang affiliation has helped him in the past, but also how he must move on in order to escape the cycle of violence and poverty. "I am a Crip," he says, "But that doesn’t determine what type of man I am. When I made that decision, I was about 15, like elementary school and stuff."

Now living with his guardian grandparents, Rayvon, like other young people in the film, has faith in Stone's vision for him. The principal spends real time and energy with his students: he appears at their homes, looming on the front porch as he extols the virtues of athletic programs and giving kids tasks and organizations, something to do besides stay out on the street until one o'clock in the morning.

"I contend that success is transferable," he says. "If kids see they can be successful in one area, it's easier to convince them they can be successful in this thing called school." And so he persists, as the documentary shows in scene after scene, mentoring and leading his students. It is sad that the film eventually becomes a memorial to Stone, who died during its production. But it is also clear that his legacy remains potent, as students commit themselves -- at least for the film's sake -- to fulfilling promises they made to him.


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