Director: Matt Ruskin
Cast: Lakeith Stanfield, Nnamdi Asomugha, Natalie Paul, Bill Camp, Nestor Carbonell
Watch Crown Heights online in the UK: Amazon Prime / Amazon Instant Video
Adapted, by writer-director Matt Ruskin from an episode of public radio show This American Life, Crown Heights acts as both biopic of one man wrongfully incarcerated for over 20 years and a broader examination of the American justice system and its bias towards imprisoning people of colour. The latter most notably comes about through the insertion of stock footage contextualising the US government’s crime policy developments during the course of the decades the film covers – we see clips of Ronald Reagan declaring that “crime today is an American epidemic”, Bill Clinton signing his 1994 Crime Bill into law, and New York Governor George Pataki delivering an inaugural address that proposed abolishing parole for felons with a history of violence.
The real-life unjust incarceration the film depicts is that of a Trinidadian young man, Colin Warner (Lakeith Stanfield, of Atlanta, Get Out and Short Term 12), who is arrested in 1980 in connection with the gunning down of another youth named Marvin Grant in a New York neighbourhood. Warner has a minor criminal record for some theft, but the only thing connecting him to the murder is the word of a 15-year-old supposed witness claiming he saw him pull the trigger. On the basis of this testimony and very little else, a few cops and the prosecution manage to push a connection between Warner and the younger man who was actually guilty, Anthony Gibson; the two had never met. Due to his age, Gibson gets off with just a few years in prison, but older teen Warner is sentenced to 15 years to life.
Warner is eventually released at the start of the 2000s, his potential early parole in the 90s denied, due to an encounter with a harassing guard putting a two-year turn in solitary confinement on his record. Despite being adamant about his innocence, Warner’s will to pursue becoming a free man fluctuates over the years; he studies up on law while locked up, looking for loopholes, but past a certain point, he seems to accept that he’ll never be released. What gets him out is the determination of his childhood friend on the outside, Carl King (Nnamdi Asomugha), devoting his life to proving Warner’s innocence.
At every turn in their respective pursuits, both Warner and King are blocked by the machinations of a judicial system that rewards admissions of guilt, regardless of the truth, and the twin forces of incompetence and institutional racism; Warner’s lawyer in the 80s explicitly states that the law enforcement wants to push more convictions just to be seen to be doing something about crime.
Earnest and righteous anger runs throughout Crown Heights, and the actual case is a remarkable, indispensable example of core problems with the American justice system. However (and this is a regretful however), a great cause doesn’t automatically make for a great movie. While there are various strengths to Crown Heights, not least the performances of Asomugha and Natalie Paul (of HBO’s Show Me a Hero) as Warner’s love on the outside, the overall film is lacking the focus of its two leads.
A big part of this is down to Ruskin and his two editors speeding through the details and developments (the film clocks in at 94 minutes), eschewing breathing space that would allow for a greater sense of character. The first half, in particular, moves like a bullet train. Within 20 minutes, Warner’s already served two years ahead of his full sentencing of 15 years to life, while the six-year milestone comes barely 15 minutes after that. It’s not so much a film of scenes as it is one of moments, packing things like two-year solitary confinement into a handful of brief shots. Very little is palpably conveyed cinematically, more just indicated.
The real Colin Warner ended up stuck as a cog in a machine, but the character of Colin Warner becomes a cog in this story, with Stanfield given little to play beyond broad, fleeting martyr beats; thankfully, the This American Life episode allowed Warner the opportunity to vocalise his struggle in his own words. Time is such a key factor to this story of delayed justice, but Crown Heights’ hectic pace, and subsequent confused framing, means that this inherently tragic narrative becomes a frustrating drama for unintended reasons.
Crown Heights is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.
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