Crown Heights, 2017.
Written and Directed by Matt Ruskin
Starring LaKeith Stanfield, Nnamdi Asomugha, Natalie Paul, Luke Forbes, Adriane Lenox, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Nestor Carbonell, Amari Cheatom, and Bill Camp.
When Colin Warner is wrongfully convicted of murder, his best friend Carl King devotes his life to proving Colin’s innocence.
Those in support of the death penalty will hopefully find themselves rethinking their stance on the hot button issue, as Crown Heights tells the uplifting but simultaneously anger inducing 21 years spanning story of a man wrongfully convicted possibly for life of a murder he did not commit. Over the course of those long years, Colin Warner (LaKeith Stanfield who was most recently seen as a supporting character in this year’s outstanding Get Out) fights the system as best he can (even going as far as educating himself on law practices, and finishing up his GED while helping others accomplish the same feat) with his best friend Carl (portrayed by former NFL All-Pro Defensive Back Nnamdi Asomugha) providing the strongest outpouring of support.
Accounting for the extensive and unfortunate amount of time Colin spent incarcerated, it is expected that Crown Heights would zoom through the years; the retelling of the events begin in 1980 although before you know it computers and cell phones quickly become part of daily life. Watching the outside world around Colin evolve greatly assists in emphasizing how much of life an innocent human being is missing out on, but like with most movies that attempt to chronicle decades worth of content the actual narrative comes across as a muddled mess with numerous characters and not enough explained motivations.
Six years into Colin’s sentence his friend Carl comes across his then close girlfriend Antoinette (played by Natalie Paul), who is shocked to learn that he is in prison for a crime he did not commit. Antoinette decides to visit Colin in prison, except the relationship becomes very unconvincing and confusing with the two seemingly dead set on being lovers for life; they even get married. Emotion in such situations is honestly difficult to feel as the filmmakers are essentially just giving bullet points of notable developments during the sentence. Similar scenarios cause writer and director Matt Ruskin’s depiction of the story to largely fall flat; there is too much material to present, and what is here is surprisingly done in as little as around 95 minutes.
Crown Heights works when it is focusing on Colin’s mental torment and how he is holding up throughout the agonizing sentence. Audiences are shown a man that could very well receive a lighter sentence if he, at any time, chooses to confess to murdering a man that he has never seen before in his life, that defiantly and righteously refuses to do so. Convicted at the age of 18, Colin does physically lash out at confrontational guards, which makes sense given that he is technically a teenager thrust into frustratingly unfair circumstances. As he ages well into adulthood and middle-aged territory, he grows into a quiet, intelligent, continuously productive person that refuses to be broken or let the justice system get away with their disgusting incompetence. Furthermore, it’s not like he has much in common with all of the other criminals, so his mind truly is his best friend and weapon. The question though is just how much injustice can he take before losing all hope, and it’s in this exploration of Colin’s headspace where Crown Heights finds a great level of engagement. Credit that all to the inspirational story being told and the headstrong/fatigued performance from LaKeith Stanfield.
Disappointingly, the second half of the film decides to shift away from prison life while best friend Carl finds a way into reopening the case, gaining access to witnesses and more. What follows is a series of procedural investigational scenes where we see the murder repeatedly play out again in flashback form, ultimately not working because there really isn’t much of a mystery to be found. It’s known from the beginning that Colin truly is innocent. However, there are a few brief touches here (cops pressuring children and Carl terrified it could have been him wrongfully imprisoned) that stand out. Still, the psyche of a man falsely sentenced seemingly for life is far more fascinating yet upsetting, even if it is rushed through to the point where there’s a sensation that it may have worked better as a television series.
Also working in the favor of Crown Heights is its middle-of-the-road tone that juxtaposes brutal beatings and other harsh conditions with artistic touches and some independent filmmaking sensibilities. Shockingly, the film also rarely draws attention to race relations or stirs the pot; it’s strictly about the flawed justice system. Basically, it’s the antithesis to the recently released Detroit. Still, rushed pacing and thin characters hold Crown Heights from sending a statement that reverberates with a shockwave. Again, at the very least it will spark some discussion regarding the death penalty as an innocent man could have been executed, which is beyond horrifying.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com