In the spring of 1980, Colin Warner’s life was turned horrifically upside down when he was arrested for a murder he did not commit and no one witnessed. With Colin facing ten years to life in prison, his childhood best friend from Trinidad, Carl King, spends the next 21 years working to exonerate the innocent man from “Crown Heights.”
This is a true-life, miscarriage of justice story by director-writer Matt Ruskin and stars Lakeith Stanfield as Colin Warner and Nnamdi Asomugha as his loyal “brother” Carl “KC” King. Ruskin does a straightforward job in chronicling Warner’s life from his unjust arrest and conviction of second-degree murder to his imprisonment for life. “Crown Heights” concentrates of Colin and his life after his freedom is abruptly taken away.
Carl King’s decades long effort to free his friend takes a back seat to Colin’s plight, though. His efforts – personal, financial and emotional sacrifices – are less “cinematic” as Carl goes through stacks of testimonies and court documents looking for ways to free his friend, taking out loans to pay legal bills and entering appeal after rejected appeal. Ruskin shows the suffering of the innocent man, Colin, but what Carl went through for him should have been given more shrift to the incredibly loyal friend and what he did out of that friendship.
The filmmakers, both cast and crew, do an earnest, yeoman’s job in bringing Colin and Carl’s story to new light – think of it, 21 years in prison, including years in solitary, and being innocent. It is straightforward storytelling of a little know true life suffering at the hands of a system that does not seem to care. It is a story that should be told. I give it a positive C+.
In 1980, eighteen year-old Trinidadian immigrant Colin Warner (Lakeith Stanfield, "Miles Ahead," "Get Out") stole a car and was chased by its owner until he crashed. He got away and went to the home of childhood friend Antoinette (Natalie Paul, HBO's 'Show Me a Hero'), shyly asking her out. Nearby, in Flatbush, a shot had rung out in broad daylight, and police questioned a fourteen year-old Haitian, Clarence Lewis (Skylan Brooks, "The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete"), until, exhausted, he picked the picture of the man who hadn't been out of "Crown Heights."
I'm surprised writer/director Matt Ruskin doesn't have any credits for 'Law & Order' type TV shows because that's exactly what "Crown Heights" frequently resembles. This egregious case of injustice, which Ruskin heard about on 'This American Life,' is an important story to tell, but although Ruskin attempts moments of poetry, he succeeds with the procedural more than the personal, his pedestrian direction hamstringing his movie.
Colin's arrested and tried, along with the actual killer, as the driver in a drive-by shooting. With no evidence and only that one eyewitness, they are convicted, much to the chagrin of Judge Marcy (Ron Canada, TV's 'The Strain,' 'Boston Legal') who states he had no way of knowing their guilt. He gives Colin the minimum sentence available to him, fifteen years to life. Throughout the years of his incarceration, Colin's best friend Carl 'KC' King (ex-NFLer Nnamdi Asomugha) fights for him, eventually realizing the only way to free him will be to actually solve the case. KC also brings Antoinette, returned from military service, to visit Colin. She takes up the cause as well, marrying Colin in prison. After many years of failed appeals, KC's approached by lawyer William Robedee (Bill Camp, playing the opposite side of his "The Night Of" role), who is appalled by his initial review of the case. Among other things, ballistics does not support the NYPD's story of a drive-by shooting. The case becomes even more jaw-dropping when Colin's supporters track down Lewis, another tragic victim of what happened that day.
"Crown Heights" is at its most involving setting its story up and reconstructing actual events at film's end, KC's frustrated efforts provoking anger during its midsection. Stanfield gives a thoughtful, refined performance, but Ruskin hampers his efforts conveying the horror of prison life, illustrating the lack of freedom with the memory of leaving his apartment for a piece of cake. We are horrified when an ogre of a guard strips Colin of his dignity as he tries to mask his whereabouts while talking to his grandmother in Trinidad (he punches the guard, leading to a beating plus two years of solitary), but Ruskin fails to articulate the toll of twenty-one years of prison life.
Yes, twenty-one years for an innocent man, his parole denied after fifteen because he refused to admit guilt. The actual killer, confronted by Colin, is freed years earlier. Unfortunately for the audience, the film itself can feel like a sentence, but Ruskin ramps up for his finale, regaining our interest as light finally shines on the truth.
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