2017, R, 94 min. Directed by Matt Ruskin. Starring Lakeith Stanfield, Nnamdi Asomugha, Natalie Paul, Amari Cheatom, Skylan Brooks, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Nestor Carbonell, Zach Grenier, Josh Pais, Bill Camp.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Sept. 8, 2017
Coincidentally or not, the current surge in true-crime stories as the underpinnings for popular film, television, and radio shows and podcasts coincides with our nation’s awakening to the injustices of the American penal system, especially in regard to the inequitable incarceration of black men. The horrors are rampant, and every miscarriage of justice is its own story once you drill down past the statistics and examine the lives affected. Crown Heights is one of these stories. The film enacts the true saga of Colin Warner of Brooklyn, who was jailed in 1980 for a murder he did not commit. He remained in prison for 21 years before he was exonerated. His story was first heard in full in an hourlong episode of This American Life.
Colin Warner is played by Lakeith Stanfield, who is best known for his work in TV’s hot new show Atlanta and Brie Larson’s breakthrough film Short Term 12. No model citizen, Colin is nevertheless alarmed to learn at the outset that he’s been arrested for murder rather than as a consequence for the car he just boosted. Crown Heights follows his case over the years while we witness his incompetent defense attorneys, the intractable police, a lying co-defendant, years in solitary, an unyielding parole board, and more. Crown Heights is also a story about love and friendship. There is Colin’s friend Carl “KC” King (Asomugha, a pro footballer before taking up acting), who works tirelessly on his friend’s behalf, even though the work and the money needed to mount Colin’s defense threatens his family life and personal welfare. Colin is also sustained by the love of Antoinette (Paul), who supports him without question and marries him while he’s still in jail.
Writer/director Matt Ruskin also includes salient moments exemplifying the national mood. Tough-on-crime speeches by politicians ranging from Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton to New York Gov. George Pataki are shown in cutaways. Crown Heights builds as a series of brief scenes, which has an unfortunate effect of making the film seem more like a police procedural than a dramatic film. The technique also has the effect of presenting the facts of the case to the detriment of the emotions of characters. True story or not, these are characters rather than the subjects of a documentary. Nevertheless, strong central performances make this harrowing chronicle a gripping tale. Crown Heights would make a perfect double bill with 13th, Ava DuVernay’s documentary look at racial inequality in the American prison system.