by Jessica Mosby
- USA -
During its midcentury glory days, Weequahic High School was a prestigious public school located in a predominantly Jewish enclave of Newark, New Jersey. Students were expected to excel post-graduation, as evidenced by noteworthy alumni, including author Philip Roth and NBA star and coach Al Attles. By the time Newark native Ronald Stone became principal in 2001, the high school’s demographic had changed and daily life was so riddled with gang violence that Stone wore a bulletproof vest when walking outside the campus’ main buildings.
Kruvant follows three WHS seniors – Rayvon, Sharif, and Ricky – who are members of rival Newark gangs. All three lacked a stable family life to varying extents, and in turn joined a gang to become part of a family. But with Stone as a mentor, each of the young men defies stereotypes commonly associated with violent gang members in inner cities. They are articulate and thoughtful, and Rayvon and Sharif are college-bound.
Despite their intelligence or dreams, almost all of the current students at WHS are held back by money and connections. That’s where Hal Braff, Class of 1952 and father of actor Zach Braff (one of the film’s executive producers), comes in. Along with some of his fellow alumni, he founded the WHS Alumni Association as a way for the former, mostly Jewish, students to connect with current, mostly African American, students. But Braff makes it very clear that this is not charity; he and other alumni are there to mentor and support the students, including financially.
On Monday evening, I attended a screening of Heart of Stone. Kruvant, Hal Braff, Zach Braff, and Attles were all present and engaged in a lively post-screening Q&A. Since then, I cannot stop thinking about the film and its powerful portrayal of an inner city high school’s struggle to succeed.
I interviewed Kruvant by phone. Heart of Stone is her third documentary and her first feature film.
I know that your parents are WHS alums, but how did you get the idea to make a documentary about the school?
I was just really looking into my roots. I filmed Philip Roth [in 2005] when he went to visit the Weequahic section [of Newark], and received a plaque on his house that said, “Newark is my Stockholm, and this plaque is my prize.” I got very interested in the Weequahic section after filming him, and from there it led me to the alumni who were raising funds and I filmed a fundraiser. Through that I met [Principal Ronald Stone] and went to the high school. So, it really was a matter of just discovering the story as I went along.
How did you decide that your principal characters would be Rayvon, Sharif, and Ricky?
I asked Stone if I could interview some of the students in the school, and of all the students, one of them was Rayvon. I asked [Stone] if I could have some more like Rayvon, because I felt that he was so interesting of a character because he seemed to have so much intelligence and yet he was deprived of so many other things in life. And overall he was articulate – coming from street gang life, being articulate [is] unusual.
The film has screened at a number of film festivals that the cast has attended. How has the film affected the lives of the principal characters?
I would love to say that it has changed their lives, but I don’t think it has made that enormous of a life-changing impact. However, it definitely has changed their perspectives on life. I brought them out of Newark for the first time in their lives and brought them to Park City for the premiere [at the 2009 Slamdance Film Festival where the film won the Audience Award]. They had never seen a ski slope, they had never been in an environment like that before. And they were actually treated like celebrities. They were being photographed. People on the street thought they were rappers. It was pretty amazing for them. And I think in a sense this whole episode with the film has been surreal for them.
However, Rayvon, in particular, has come under the wings of the [WHS Alumni Association] co-founder Hal Braff, who has gotten him an internship at the Bankruptcy Court Newark. Rayvon has spent the summer seeing a whole new world, seeing that there is a possibility for him to get out of the inner city life, the gang life, and actually, maybe, do something with himself. I think that has allowed Rayvon to taste and see the opportunities out there more than the other characters.
You said at the screening that Rayvon decided to transfer to Seton Hall University, the college he originally decided not to go to.
This film has really bullied him into going to Seton Hall. He will hopefully start in September, and will hopefully make something of himself. I think that we’re all rooting for Rayvon. That would be amazing – it’s not easy.
I wonder if Principal Stone’s decision to put so much money into sports was controversial?
In a sense you do have people saying why not more into [other areas]…particularly music, because that’s so important. But because he was an athlete, his natural inclination was to go straight to sports. He felt building school pride – like the school band, orchestra, majorettes, and cheerleaders – would create an atmosphere of pride and the ability to win from within, then he could transfer that to everything else within the school.
He was successful! They won the state championship, which they hadn’t done in at least 35 years. It was really amazing that he was able to do that!
Has the sports program continued to flourish after Principal Stone’s death?
Yes - the alumni are still supporting it, giving funds for football camp and overnight camp, funds for uniforms and shoes – and anything they need in support of the sports program. They are really committed to seeing it survive and excel.
As you’ve taken the film across the country at screenings, has the alumni support increased as other alums see the film? I know there were a lot of alums at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival screening on Monday night.
It’s really amazing that the film has inspired the alumni. I have alumni who come and had no idea that the association is raising funds for [current] students. They are so moved! They are so connected. They say, “Wow, I had no idea that they were doing this. I’m so proud of them, and I want to be a part of it.” It’s really great! It’s wonderful that I provided a forum for the alumni to see that they can look back into their roots and their past, and it’s giving meaning for the future.
How did Hal Braff decide to co-found the WHS Alumni Association, and really start his role as a mentor for students?
Hal and Sheldon Bross got together with Phil Yourish and they decided that they wanted to form an NGO, and do something for the kids that go there today. Phil has been in education in Newark his whole life, and Sheldon and Hal were very into doing something that wasn’t just talking about the good old days. They got together and they said, “Let’s really do this, let’s get an executive director, let’s create this like a legal corporation that functions and can actually work.” It was really just a matter of getting these minds together, creating it, and forming a board.
They decided that they would have two co-presidents. One would be from the 70’s and up to present date, and one would be from the older generation. So, you would be sort of be guaranteed that you would have an African American and a Jewish alumni coming together being the leaders of the organization. It was pretty smart.
One thing I really liked about the film was that you show another side to gang members that are generally stereotyped as not going anywhere. Sharif and Rayon are college-bound and very articulate. Is this something that surprised you about the principal characters, or the Alumni Association?
In the Alumni Association, I was happy to see blacks and Jews working together as one big family. They both embraced each other’s cultures and have learned from each other. I think they are so happy because there is no other venue for them to come together.
You move on in life [past high school], you sort of end up in your own niche…this is a forum where they can have dinner together, have huge fundraisers together. You have blacks and Jews coming together, and they love it! It’s really exciting! And I really like it too! That was one of the pluses I got from filming the alumni. They really are one big family. Being a child of a Weequaher, I feel part of the family.
I was particularly taken by Sharif and his leadership role in the scene in which he talks to Ricky about the importance of graduating from high school.
That was amazing! He was parenting Ricky, and you really see that they take on the role of the parents within the gang’s families. I thought that was very interesting – it’s also very realistic. There is a lot on their plate, and there is so much they can do. It is really through Weequahic and through that whole organization of conflict resolution that the gangs have decided that graduating is important, and that the kids in the gangs can have options to do other things besides gang life. And to be positive and to mentor others. I think that more than anything they are looking for love and support. If they can give love and support, that’s probably what they are trying to do.
Sharif is involved in Saving Ourselves, which is an organization to help at-risk kids. He can talk to them and mentor them – he loves being the big brother. You see those who survive really try to help others survive, because they are living at the brink of death every day.
- Film stills courtesy of the filmmakers.
About the Author
Jessica Mosby is a writer and critic living in Oakland, California. In the rare moments when she's not traveling across the United States for work, Jessica enjoys listening to public radio, buying organic food at local farmers markets, trolling junk stores, and collecting owl-themed tchotchke.