I was exploring the neighborhood my father grew up in when I filmed the Philip Roth tour of Weequahic, Newark, NJ. I grew up visiting my grandparents there on weekends. I later read in the local paper that the alumni from WHS were raising funds for [current] students. I thought that remarkable and asked if I could film the fundraising dinner. The principal of Weequahic High School [WHS], Ron Stone, invited me to come and film. When I came to the school, Principal Stone walked me down the corridors and opened his world to me. It was then that I saw a glimpse into the struggle of the students today and couldn't put my camera down.
What happened to Weequahic is emblematic of the decline of American cities. Can you tell our readers what's so special about this particular high school?
And how. At one time, it produced more PhDs than any other high school anywhere.
Yes, and it was the first high school in the US to offer Swahili as a language. It, of course, offered Hebrew as well. It had many teachers with PhDs that could not find work in their field of study because of the Depression. In many of his novels, Philip Roth represented the community as like living in "Camelot." It's a small area and was comprised of many middle-income families, directly affected by the Holocaust and the Depression.
So, this movie stemmed from a chance visit to your grandparents' old neighborhood. As time went on, did you have a clear idea where you were going or did the film write itself along the way?
The film wrote itself along the way - the story emerged slowly. The complete story emerged in the editing room. I had no idea what Stone's answers were going to be and one question led to another. I tried to tie in the connection of the alumni and the past Jewish community; Stone showed me that that world was past as were many of the positive influences of his world. He was trying to recapture that world.
Looking for a captivating story, I naturally turned to the students. Stone selected several he thought would be articulate and interesting. I narrowed the story down to the three gang members [Sharif, Ricky and Rayvon]. Seeing the influence of gang life on the students, I saw the story. I needed to build the characters, like building a case for court. I collected evidence to convince my audience that these were well-rounded individuals that we can relate to. I tried to film my three main characters as much as possible. At the same time, I kept on filming every alumni association meeting to capture what they were doing.
How was Principal Ron Stone able to cut through the strong gang culture at WHS?
He grew up on the streets of Newark and experienced the gang culture of the fifties and sixties. He understood the mentality of the kids who grew up on the streets. The [current] principal was the principal in another school for over ten years, but he did not grow up on the streets of Newark, like Stone, and therefore does not have the credibility that Stone carried. This has proven to be a great liability in running the school. Fights are starting up and students are dropping out again.
Braff and Bross put the group together. They put in the by-laws that one co-president would be from before 1960 and one after. This would insure one older, probably Jewish, and one younger, probably African-American. They went to alumni reunions and pitched the association. Many alumni disregarded their efforts; the alumni would rather give to Jewish causes. Now, with the help of the film, more alumni are joining.
This alumni association is akin to college alumni: very aggressive and committed. The interplay between Principal Stone and the alumni is also unusual. Stone knew how to best use the alumni; he would hold out a carrot (alumni funding for trips) to students who passed major exams. I am hoping to use this model for other schools and it's the basis of Campaign Kinship, the outreach we are doing.