Director: Matt Ruskin
Cast: Lakeith Stanfield, Nnamdi Asomugha, Natalie Paul, Amari Cheatom, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Nestor Carbonell, Bill Camp, Zach Grenier, Josh Pais
MPAA Rating: (for language, some sexuality/nudity and violence)
Running Time: 1:34
Release Date: 8/18/17 (limited); 9/1/17 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | August 31, 2017
Based on the true story of a man who was wrongfully imprisoned for a murder that he didn't commit, Crown Heights has little to say about the man, his over-two-decade fight to be exonerated, or what he went through in prison. The movie has even less to say about the prison system itself or the reasons a legal system would allow such a miscarriage of justice to occur.
As written and directed by Matt Ruskin (adapting a two-part piece from "This American Life" by Anya Bourg), the story of Colin Warner (played in the movie by Lakeith Stanfield) has been transformed into a routine melodrama that focuses on what happened, instead of why and how it happened. Even then, it's not particularly effective, given that Colin's time behind bars—beginning with a years-long trial that results in a 15-year-to-life sentence—is, in relative terms, hastily depicted over the course of the movie's 90-or-so-minute running time.
There's little sense of the weight of time passing here, and neither is there an understanding of the context of the legal and judicial systems that would target Colin specifically for this crime. Ruskin clearly doesn't want to ruffle any feathers, so any racial prejudice that played a role in the real Warner's arrest and incarceration are omitted.
The cops here seem eager to throw the book at Colin, an immigrant from Trinidad, out of a sense of certainty that he shot a man in broad daylight on the street of the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, despite hearing from unreliable witnesses and arresting the man who actually committed the crime. The trial is a railroad proceeding, filled with faulty testimony and a plea deal that could save Colin, although that means the man who actually killed someone would have to own up to it. During sentencing, the judge offers a mildly apologetic acknowledgment that the system likely messed up big time in this case.
In Ruskin's portrayal, this is simply one of those terrible things that just happens to happen to people for no particular reason. There's no overt or even subtle racism in the motive of anyone here, and there's little hint of it anyone else in the movie, either (Speeches about crime from elected officials—from three Presidents to one New York state governor—retain the undertones of racial bias that they always possessed, but that's about it).
About half of the story takes place outside of prison, as Colin's best friend and, later, brother-in-law Carl "KC" King (Nnamdi Asomugha) raises money, does some research, and hires an attorney (played with understated authenticity by Bill Camp) for Colin's appeal. The other half is devoted to Colin's time in prison, with titles appearing every so often to assure us that, yes, time has passed, even if it doesn't feel like it.
Because the narrative takes place in a contextual vacuum, it's up to the actors to give us any reason to care, beyond the face-value injustice of it all. The leads are quite good in their respective roles. Without much of a character beyond the one molded by this situation, Stanfield has the difficult task of showing how Colin transforms from a scared young man to a hardened prisoner to a wiser man who is willing to accept his fate, as long as he can maintain his innocence—even if doing so prevents him from receiving an early release.
Asomugha displays compassion and intelligence in a role that becomes saddled with plenty of homegrown melodrama, as his wife Briana (Marsha Stephanie Blake), also Colin's sister, worries that KC is spending too much time trying to free Colin—again, her brother. Ruskin's screenplay doesn't give the two main actors much of a friendship with which to work, meaning that Asomugha has the impossible task of playing the character and representing the bond between the two men. The stronger relationship is between Colin and his friend/later-to-be wife Antoinette (Natalie Paul), but even that coupling is rushed to where it needs to go through a series of letters.
The movie feels like the first draft of a story, waiting for the substance, context, and insight to be added as the writing process progresses. We've seen these stories before, and as depressing as it is to note yet another failed chapter of the United States legal system, Crown Heights doesn't add anything to the conversation, except vague outrage that such a thing happened to this man. It's not nearly enough.
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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