Film Review – Crown Heights
If there is one thing that writer/director Matt Ruskin does well in Crown Heights (2017), it’s highlighting the fact that the justice system is inherently flawed. With pressure put upon law enforcement to swiftly capture criminals to the racial profiling of minorities (particularly those of the black community), the system that’s supposed to serve and protect has also had a long history of wrongfully convicting innocent people. The idea of “innocent until proven guilty” is switched around as soon as a person is locked away. And the process of freeing that person can literally take a lifetime. Endless paperwork, the attorney fees, and a state that’s reluctant to admit an injustice can break the spirit of a person trying to set themselves free.
We sense this rollercoaster of emotions stirring within Colin Warner (Lakeith Stanfield). Warner was a Trinidadian man living in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. On April 10th, 1980, Warner was arrested for the murder of a local teenage kid. Warner could not have committed the crime; we learn that he had actually stolen a car that same day. But that doesn’t matter to the authorities. After pressuring witnesses into providing false testimony, Warner was swiftly convicted of second-degree murder, and sentenced to 15 years to life in prison.
Ever since his supporting performance in Short Term 12 (2013), Stanfield has quickly moved up the ranks of young actors to watch out for. As Warner, he displays a wide array of thoughts and feelings. Imagine being told by everyone around you that you’re a killer, and having your life taken from you in the blink of an eye. Stanfield successfully exudes these mental stages. As he walks into his cell, he looks around like a lost little kid. As process of proving his innocence moves at a sluggish pace, his feelings turn to impatience, frustration, anger, and even despair. As he wakes up in the morning, he wishes with all his might that everything were just a dream, only to open his eyes and see the bars lining his cell window.
But as strong as Stanfield’s work is, the best performance might actually come from Nnamdi Asomugha, who plays Warner’s friend, Carl ‘KC’ King. King spends a large portion of his life dedicated to proving Warner’s innocence – whether it’s going door to door asking for donations for the legal fees, presenting their case to any attorney that’s willing to listen, or conducting his own investigation – King spends so much energy focusing on Warner that it puts a strain on his own family. But King understands that the situation they are in is much larger than themselves. In the best scene, King explains to Warner why he continues to fight even though hope is nearly lost. King knows full well that it could have easily been him that was arrested that fateful day, and that there are many others that are in the exact same predicament Warner is. Asomugha’s performance is underplayed effectively. Without raising his voice above a whisper, Asomugha hits us with the film’s central theme with startling power.
The strength of the two central performances is what makes Crown Heights worth watching. Ruskin’s writing and direction does just enough to support Warner and Asomugha’s work, although perhaps his approach is a bit too customary. The courtroom scenes, the flashbacks, the testimonies, and of course the closing credits where we see pictures of the real life characters, are all part and parcel of the genre. Ruskin is most effective when he inserts a number of documentary footage to help distinguish the time that we are in. Most of this features political figures and the roles they played regarding the justice system. Ronald Reagan and his infamous “War on Crime” initiative of the 1980s, or Bill Clinton’s “Three Strikes” bill of the 1990s, all which contributed to the problems we now see in the wrongful convictions of innocent people.
Although Crown Heights – on a cinematic level – is your standard courtroom drama, its subject matter is all the more important to examine. When we step back and look at this story from a wider perspective, we see that the issues presented have lasting effects for all those involved. Reports on the nightly news are only a snippet of a bigger whole. People’s lives are permanently affected. Although what ultimately happens to Colin Warner is well known (anyone can find out with a quick internet search) the years he spent behind bars will never be given back to him. An injustice committed by those in power resulted in a person doing time for a crime he did not commit. These are problems that will probably persist far longer than any of us would care to admit, but hopefully films like this will act as stepping-stones in the right direction.