Hart is the inspiration for the main character in famed novelist and screenwriter Richard Price's novels "Clockers" (1992) and Freedomland (1998), both set in the fictional New Jersey town of Dempsy (a stand-in for Jersey City).
He also is a consultant on several projects written by Price, including the screen adaptation of Freedomland, premiering in movie theaters this weekend (see sidebar for movie review).
The film stars Samuel L. Jackson as Hart's alter ego, Detective Lorenzo Council, along with Julianne Moore.
Hart has consulted on other Price written projects such as "Kiss of Death" (1995) and "Shaft" (2001).
Hart also has a small part in Freedomland and has had bit parts in several movies, and larger parts in local theatre productions such as the Jersey City-based Attic Ensemble's production of the death row drama, The Exonerated.
But Hart has not gone Hollywood, instead continuing to serve the public in his hometown.
"I enjoy working in the place where I grew up," said Hart. "I want to continue serving the community because there is still a lot of work to do."Community leader
Whenever Calvin Hart presents his two-sided business card, it usually catches the attention of the recipient.
One side lists his work as a teacher and motivational speaker with a headline in bold letters that reads, "SEE ME NOW." The other side lists his work as a Jersey City homicide detective with the headline, "SEE ME LATER."
"What I do in my life is about changing one kid at a time," said Hart, "and like it says on the business card, it's either they see me now before they head down the wrong path in life, or they see me later when it's too late."
Some of the community work Hart performs includes lecturing to kids from pre-kindergarten to high school on drugs and gangs. He also serves as a substitute teacher in the Jersey City school system.
Hart ran programs for youth over the years including the Homework Club in the Curries Woods public housing complex near the Jersey City/Bayonne border, where he was stationed as a police officer in the late 1980s into the 1990s. He would develop friendships with young people while at Curries Woods.
"I have some kids who are taking the [police officers] test who go back a long way with me," said Hart. "I hope I can continue to inspire young people to become anything they want to be."
It was while working in Curries Woods in the early 1990s that he struck up a friendship with Price, who was visiting Jersey City to do research for his future novel, Clockers.
Hart described the process of working with Price whenever the two meet.
"He might bring me a scenario, and I would start telling him what I would do...we would sit and meet and have lunch," said Hart. "Sometimes we would be together for a whole day."
According to Hart, Price transposed the Susan Smith case to an urban environment when he wrote Freedomland.
Susan Smith was a South Carolina mom who gained worldwide attention on Oct. 25, 1994 after she made a false report to police that her car had been carjacked by an African-American man who drove away with her sons still inside.
But Smith confessed more than a week later that she allowed a car to roll into a lake, thus drowning her children. "Freedomland" was shot in New York City, Yonkers, and Queens in the spring of 2005.
In his small part, Hart plays what he called an "Uncle Tom" police chief.
Hart also resumed his friendship with Jackson that started from "Kiss of Death," with Price naming Jackson's character in that movie "Calvin Hart."
"Jackson came to Jersey City to research a part for a movie, and he hung around with me," Hart said. "I remember it was pouring rain and I told him he didn't have to continue. He told me, 'I'm with you; this is a job like anything else' and he stayed the whole day with me."
Hart has also developed a respect for the acting profession. And fans of Hart have developed even more respect for him.
That was evident last week, at an advance screening of "Freedomland" at the Newport Center Mall Cinema, where a number of attendees applauded when they saw his face on screen or his name during the end credits. He was asked after the screening if he thought of himself as a "renaissance man."
"Renaissance man, hmm - I like that description," said Hart. Ricardo Kaulessar can be reached at email@example.com Sidebar 'Freedomland' - a messy but ambitious film
Freedomland (2006), directed by Joe Roth, written by Richard Price, 112 min., starring Samuel L. Jackson, Julianne Moore, Edie Falco, William Forsythe, Aunjanue Ellis. The opening credits of "Freedomland" show Brenda Martin (Julianne Moore) drifting down the streets of the fictional New Jersey town of Dempsy in a dreamlike state until she reaches the hospital.
But when she shows her bleeding hands to a doctor, that's when a nightmare is revealed.
Brenda is a white woman from the neighboring town of Gannon who claims she was carjacked by an African-American from the nearby Armstrong housing projects with her 4-year-old son, Cody, still in the stolen car.
Entering into the nightmare is Dempsy detective Lorenzo Council, who tries to help Brenda find her son. Lorenzo empathizes with Brenda immediately, as the movie reveals they are both single parents who have lost their sons in different ways (Lorenzo's son was serving time in jail).
But that bond is soon tested when Lorenzo begins to see holes in Brenda's retelling of her ordeal.
Her lie is the jumping off point for this movie, which explores a variety of hot button issues including race relations between blacks and whites, police brutality, and parental negligence. The movie would lead up to an emotional climax at Freedomland Village, a home for orphaned children where Brenda reveals the unthinkable about what happened to Cody. But there is no resolution or comfort as her story leads to Armstrong residents and Dempsy and Gannon police clashing with one another.
Freedomland is an ambitious but somewhat scattered movie, as it covers a wide range of issues. But its lack of focus becomes its strength, as its shows the messiness of human relations.
Director Joe Roth ("Coup De Ville," "Christmas with the Kranks") may have directed his best film to date because of his ability to allow Price's screenwriting to shine through. Jackson and Moore are both Oscar-nominated actors who are expected to steal scenery, but they are complemented by other fine character actors in the cast including Falco, far removed from her role on "The Sopranos," as an advocate for missing children.
The film was originally slated for a December release, but instead was moved to the middle of February, a bad time for movie viewership. It warrants a re-release in December. - RK