Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Review: Heart Of Stone (2009)

Heart of Stone
90 minutes
Not Rated

by Scott Mendelson

Note - this film just won the Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature at the 2009 Slamdance film festival.

Heart of Stone
is, on the surface, a documentary version of that oft-told tale of the inspirational inner-city principal bringing order and hope to a blighted urban school district. That so many stories exist both in fictional and non-fictional realms is a sad commentary on the state of public education in this country. But this film (originally titled It’s Hard to Be an Indian) has more on its mind than the feel-good story that we all know so well.

A token amount of plot – In the 1960s, the Weequahic section of Newark New Jersey was mostly a first generation Jewish community. Spurred on by bitter memories of the Holocaust and the Great Depression, the Jewish majority graduated more PhDs from Weequahic than anywhere in the country (their most famous alumni was novelist Philip Roth). Following the 1967 Newark riots, most of the Jewish community fled, leaving behind only the poor black citizens. Over the next thirty years, the community’s economic stock plummeted and the school in question became a template for the failure of inner-city schools. In 2001, the new principal, Rob Stone, embarked on an ambitious project to restore the school to its former glory, and wrestle away control from the factions of the Crips and the Bloods that had become the dominating social order.

Ron Stone, a black man who was married to a Jewish woman, immediately established the school as a violence-free zone, and worked to quell rumors or situations that might have given rise to gang violence. The major thrust of this goal was an intense conflict resolution program that acknowledged the gang influence on the community but refused to let it control the school. He was astonishingly successful in defusing the gangs’ chokehold and even inspired gang members to give up the streets and attempt higher education. Furthermore, he engaged the all-too-willing help of black and Jewish alumni in order to raise scholarships and inspire the students. The Weequahic Alumni Association still exists today.

None of Stone’s ideas or methods should be all that shocking or controversial. Conflict resolution would obviously be paramount to decreasing violence within the school halls. Of course such efforts cannot succeed without the help of the community. That such an ideology should be considered noteworthy enough to form a documentary is a rather said statement by itself. But that is not a slight against the film itself.

The picture itself is, like many documentaries of its nature, an interesting story well told. The opening act is filled with fascinating anecdotes about life in Weequahic in the 1960s, with the White, Jewish, and black communities living with only a token amount of harmony (there was one white gang called ‘the bangers’ who would attack Jews, while there was another gang called ‘the redskins’, who would protect the Jews). The latter two acts delve into what will surely seem like cliché for most followers of big-city education: the gangs, the hopelessness, the struggle to get parents involved when there aren’t always two parents, and the lone parent has to work all the time just to survive. But writer/director Beth Toni Kruvant deals head-on with various cultural stereotypes on all sides that make the system that much harder to reform. The picture also delves into the oft-repeated claims about bitter hatred between the Jewish and African American communities.

Heart of Stone is an inspirational story about an inspirational man. There is also a tinge of anger in the picture, both at the sorry state of certain public schools, as well as bewilderment as to why Stone’s relatively logical reform system isn’t simply considered common sense. This film is not a masterpiece of technical production; in fact the video quality is occasionally crude. But this is a story worth telling, so the means of which it is told is immaterial.

Ron Stone’s example had a literally transformative effect on this previously written-off school, as well as the students who attended it. Hopefully his ideology can serve as a blueprint for other similar schools and give said students a chance at something that many of us took for granted – a future.

Grade: B+

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