Directed by Matt Ruskin | Starring Lakeith Stanfield, Nnamdi Asomugha, Nestor Carbonell | Rated R
You can’t tell yourself it’s just a movie.
Colin Warner, a Brooklyn resident who immigrated with his family from Trinidad in his early teens, spent 1980 through 2001 incarcerated for a murder he did not commit. An unfortunate mix of bureaucratic inefficiency, prejudice against the poor, bullied “witnesses” and good old bad luck were to blame.
“Crown Heights,” written and directed by Matt Ruskin, works best when it leans into the frustration one feels in fighting an enormous, uncaring institution. Warner, marvelously played by Lakeith Stanfield, goes through cycles of hope and defeat during his long struggle to clear his name.
When it looks like he has no fight left in him, the film cuts to his best friend Carl (former NFL pro Nnamdi Asomugha). While Carl’s dedication to the truth is inspiring, it shows how the long-term effects of injustice ripple out and poison relationships in its wake.
Depressingly, we see how only Carl’s determination and some coincidences are what got Colin out of prison. More frightening is the thought that if this had happened in Texas, Colin may have been executed by now. “Crown Heights,” thanks especially to the strength of the two lead performances, is the type of film that can leave you furious.
This is not to imply, however, that it is a masterpiece of cinema. It takes quite some time to get rolling and some of the more procedural sequences feel an awful lot like a “Law & Order” episode. It perks back up when you see things from Carl’s beleaguered wife’s point of view: just how much time and money will her husband spend on a lost cause as their life deteriorates?
Overall, “Crown Heights” is best served when it shows the nitty-gritty of prison life (so that’s how a conjugal visit works!) and getting inside the head of a man who woke up each morning praying “please don’t be a cell.”