August 17, 2009

REVIEW: Heart of Stone (A)

I've been convinced ever since my experience teaching in a low-income neighborhood that as civil servants, public school teachers are among the most underpaid and unappreciated workers in American society. Here are millions of adults providing millions of children with the skills and knowledge to succeed (and not simply survive) in the future, and they're paid beans. After watching Beth Toni Kruvant's Heart of Stone, I was reminded that many school administrators deserve higher pay as well, and, in the case of principals like Ron Stone, maybe also a Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Heart of Stone is a riveting, refreshing, heartbreaking but ultimately inspiring documentary that will forever change your impressions of public schools in America. You think you've seen this story before, recently in The Class, or earlier in Dangerous Minds, Stand and Deliver, and even High School High. In fact, with a bald African-American principal trying to clean up a formerly prestigious high school in inner-city New Jersey that's been overrun by gang violence, Heart of Stone would appear to be the documentary version of Lean on Me. But it's not. For starters, Ron Stone is the antithesis of Joe Clark. He's unconventional and a rebel, perhaps, but a warmhearted and compassionate rebel, and someone who understands that walking around with a baseball bat doesn't mean much when students are walking around with loaded Uzis.

Wearing a bullet-proof vest as he patrols the grounds of Weequahic High School, Stone is fearless in his interactions with the Crips and Bloods that make up his student body, visiting them at their homes and bringing them into his office on a regular basis for conversations about life. Stone explains, "The school has to be the parent, it has to be the psychologist, it has to be the police, it has to be all these things that, at one time, were the responsibilities of the family."

Indeed, having served in his position only a few years, Stone (who grew up in Newark) understands the harsh truth that many inner-city educators try to work around: "If I expect you to come in here and learn geometry and you say to me, 'But i don't have anywhere to live', how realistic is that? If you say to me, 'Mr. Stone, I can't carry books home, because I gotta have my hands in my pocket, because my hand is on whatever my protection is gonna be, because I have to cross two turflines to get home, how can I say, 'Yeah, well that's fine, but where's your geometry homework? See, unless I can address these needs that the kids have, I have no credibility with them."

And that's just what he does, examining each student's individual situations and then doggedly addressing every obstacle that prevents them from achieving their true potential.

Heart of Stone packs loads of rich history and insight into its trim, 84-minute running time. Utilizing a refreshingly conventional, interview-heavy documentary filmmaking method that's almost quaint in this age of Michael Moore, Man on Wire, and The Cove, Kruvant focuses her lens on Stone, three gang members, and the Jewish community. You might wonder why so much attention is paid to the community as a whole and the history of the high school - until you learn that Weequahic was once considered one of, if not the, best high schools in the nation. Alumni from the 50's and 60's, including Pulitzer Prize-winning author Philip Roth and American Gangster muse Richie Roberts (portrayed in the film by Russell Crowe), describe the school as a place full of promise and potential, from which you could attend any college and achieve any dream.

Following the racial turmoil and riots of the late 1960's, however, Newark - and consequently Weequahic - suffered a slow and unabated decline in socioeconomic status. Eventually gang violence was even spilling onto the school grounds, where a police officer was shot and killed by a gang member several years ago. Despite this tarnished image, Weequahic alumni, many of whom were Jewish and members of the classes of the 50's and 60's, decide to band together and form the Weequahic Alumni Association.

In doing so, and motivated by their self-imposed obligation to give back to the school that paved the way for their future success, these predominantly Jewish alumni committed to helping predominantly African-American students achieve similar dreams at Weequahic, going so far as to raise thousands of dollars in scholarship funds and sponsor trips to Europe (Stone: "It allows a kid to see there's a world out there so vastly different - and I hope that that stimulates something in you that allows you to think, you know, 'I could see doing this again, I want to do this again, how do I make it happen so I can do this again?'.").

On one level, then, Heart of Stone poses an extremely challenging question: What, if anything, do you owe to the public school that educated you, and to what extent should you - and not the state or school district - be responsible for helping its current students succeed? If you believe that any student has the potential to succeed under the right circumstances, as I do, then it's hard not to celebrate the Weequahic Alumni Association's efforts and hope that they encourage other schools and communities to follow suit. It would be nice to have a visionary hero like Ron Stone to manage the school on a day-to-day basis, but Heart of Stone shows that a public school with an alumni association as active and philanthropic as a private school can probably achieve some surprising success on its own.

In addition to focusing on what needs to go on in the community outside of the school to make a difference, Heart of Stone also provides vivid examples of what can happen when the community inside the school is transformed. Establishing fair rules and introducing conflict resolution seminars, Stone turned Weequahic into a non-violent space and became a mentor to several students along the way, including seniors Rayvon and Sharif (18 year-old gang leaders in the Crips and Bloods, respectively), who are, depending on the day, both ashamed and proud of their gang affiliations.

Rayvon is an intelligent, soft-spoken, contemplative young man who was raised in foster homes and joined the Crips if for no other reason than to experience "family" life for the first time. He likes to read and has hopes for leaving Newark, but when he is accepted to Seton Hall University, he is paralyzed by the thought of leaving the familiarity of his surroundings, regardless of how dangerous they may be. Sharif, on the other side of the turf line, is a larger-than-life, charismatic presence with a grin on his face and a twinkle in his eye. He and his brother are both influential leaders in the Bloods, and Sharif understands the value of education, even if he doesn't fully understand the value of life. His helpless mother appears to get some strange pride out her sons' leadership ability, even if it is exercised within one of the deadliest gangs in America.

It's outrageous to consider, but in listening to these young men you begin to develop some respect for them as well, if not at least some sympathy. The more you learn about the community and the more you learn about their families, the more you start to see them like Ron Stone does, not as gang members or problem students, but as confused kids with a lot of potential to do a lot of great things. If you are similarly engaged by this film, I will warn you of a development that literally caused me to gasp aloud, and left my fiancee and I emotionally wrecked for the rest of the night.

Critics of public schools - and there are legion - will throw out the baby with the bathwater here, pointing to the millions of high school dropouts and failed institutions that aren't seen in Heart of Stone. There's no denying this reality, but the message of this film is not that school reform can be achieved by pie-in-the-sky dreams and happy classes. Obviously, it takes a lot of hard work, sacrifice, discipline, gratitude, humility, forgiveness, and determination to turn schools around. But as evidenced by Ron Stone and Weequahic High School, optimism and compassion go a long way as well.

Writing - N/A
Acting - N/A
Production - 10
Emotional Impact - 10
Music - 4
Social Significance - 5

Total: 29/30= 97% = A

Heart of Stone is currently playing in limited theatrical release. Visit the official website for screening information.


  1. I got to see this at Cinequest and absolutely loved it. I also wrote my MA Thesis on Inner-City High School films so this one was right up my alley.

    Also, I'm curious to see if you've watched the French movies "To Be and To Have" and Au Revoir Les Enfants?"

  2. Totally fantastic that you actually earned a degree studying movies like this. Among the documentaries I've seen on the subject, this is among the highest if only because of the depth it offers in terms of providing context in the community and explaining how the school lost its luster. We usually don't hear that part of the story.

    Yes, I have seen To Be and To Have but I ought to watch it again. I remember it being quite charming. I have not seen Au Revoir Les Enfants but that sounds like another French gem.

  3. I was not a big fan of TO BE AND TO HAVE, but I did love AU REVOIR LES ENFANTS. Of course it's inevitable that THE CLASS will come up in this discussion too, and it's reputation is far more extraordinary than my own opinion would pose. Dan, I must say I am excited about this film after reading your thorough and insightful essay here, even if the mention of LEAN ON ME didn't do the same. LOL!!!

    "Critics of public schools - and there are legion - will throw out the baby with the bathwater here, pointing to the millions of high school dropouts and failed institutions that aren't seen in Heart of Stone."

    Yeah, that is inevitable and annoying.

  4. You know I thought about what your reaction to this might be, Sam, as a school teacher in the NY/NJ area. Do tell if you end up seeing it - I'm not sure if you'd be uplifted or dejected, but I recommend it either way.


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