In 1980, Colin Warner (Lakeith Stanfield, Get Out) was an 18-year-old recent immigrant to the United States from Trinidad with a criminal background.
He was not, however, a murderer.
Crown Heights, based upon a 2005 episode of This American Life called "DIY," is an all too familiar story in the American justice system. It's the story of a young man who was railroaded and served 21 years for the murder of a teenage boy that he did not commit after being named by witnesses he'd never met before and being disbelieved by the almost all-white jury because of his known criminal record.
Written and directed by Matt Ruskin, Crown Heights is a maddening film about a maddening case. The early scenes in Crown Heights are pointed yet not particularly involving as young Colin is busted for what he believes is stealing a car, a crime the film observes that he did actually commit. Instead, a young teen (Skylan Brooks) has positively identified him as the killer, though it's an identification that would be recanted under oath.
It didn't matter. The damage had been done. Colin would spend the next 21 years, including several years in solitary confinement, for a crime he did not commit and, in fact, would have time added to his sentence for "behavioral" issues and, if we're being honest, for that "attitude" of his that refused to ever express remorse for the crime.
Crown Heights picks up when Carl (former Oakland Raider Nnamdi Asomugha), Colin's longtime best friend, enters the film and, at least at times, becomes its moral focus as he commits much of his adult life to proving Colin's innocence including sacrificing family, his finances and more. The film's emotional resonance really picks up once Carl recruits William Robedee (Bill Camp), an attorney whose rage at the injustice afforded Colin is real, palpable and drives the film toward a conclusion that we expect yet one that is still ultimately immensely satisfying.
If there are issues with Crown Heights, and there are, they center around Ruskin's mostly successful but occasionally frustrating attempts at balancing the film between the stories of Colin, who would eventually marry his high school sweetheart (Natalie Paul) while behind bars, and Carl, whose efforts to find a way to right wrongs had me thinking that he is, quite literally, the kind of friend that every human being alive should have. The dude was relentless.
Lakeith Stanfield, who has been doing some high quality work as of late but really broke out in Get Out, is quietly riveting as Colin, though Ruskin's script never really digs deeply enough to allow Stanfield to really shine a light on what kind of absurd strength allows a man to survive 21 years of unjust incarceration. Strangely enough, Asomugha is given more room to flex as Carl, whose relentless devotion to justice despite the intellectual awareness he's fighting a system that doesn't give a damn about Colin is riveting even when Ruskin's script keeps it all low-key.
At times, Crown Heights reminded me of The Stanford Prison Experiment, though less manic and certainly less emotionally intense. Both films share a sort of docu-drama feeling that sort of comes with painstaking devotion to detail that sometimes comes at the expense of more satisfying cinema.
A good film telling a great story, Crown Heights is currently playing in limited release nationwide and opens on September 8th in Indianapolis at the Landmark Glendale 12 and the Showplace 12 at Washington Square. For more information on the film, visit its official website linked to in the credits.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic