About halfway through Crown Heights, a careless attorney rattles off a smarmy-but-true sales pitch: The system doesn’t work for people who can’t afford to defend themselves.
In the case of Colin Warner, that’s only part of the infuriating true story.
This American Life fans may already know the tale: In 1980, Warner, an 18-year-old Trinidadian immigrant living in Brooklyn, was arrested for a homicide he did not commit. After two years in jail awaiting trial, he was convicted of murder in the second degree and sentenced to 15 years to life in prison.
Crown Heights doesn’t show us much of Warner’s life before his ordeal—he’s nabbed by a couple of crooked cops less than seven minutes into the movie—but our brief glimpses position Warner (Lakeith Stanfield) as an imperfect kid. There’s no rose-tinting: He’s shown stealing a car prior to his arrest. Though the moment passes without much to-do, it’s an important scene to include for how closely it tracks with contemporary events.
There are those among us who seem to lose all empathy the instant they learn of a victim’s past transgressions, no matter how small. (Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, and Philando Castile come to mind.) The car theft, in tandem with Warner’s unrelated tribulations, not only gives us a nuanced character portrayal but also challenges the aforementioned mindset.
Warner spends years in prison, his only hope for freedom riding on his friend Carl “K.C.” King (Nnamdi Asomugha), who takes it upon himself to raise money for Warner’s legal expenses.
When King finally has enough money to hire a lawyer, the one he finds proves to be incompetent and unprepared, blowing Warner’s appeal and taking off with the money. King soldiers on, playing part lawyer, part detective, exploring all possible means of getting his friend out of prison to the detriment of his own marriage and personal finances. The movie is as much about King as it is about Warner, and the saga itself is a testament to the perseverance that can bloom out of a true friendship.
While it’s an amazing story, its dramatization does lack some punch. Stanfield plays Warner with a somberness that powerfully relates the sense of hopelessness he must have felt, and Asomugha is equally strong in his reserved tenacity. But the film as a whole never coalesces into anything transcendent, dragging often. This could be the inherent tedium of the whole case, as year upon year—21 in total—passes with Warner wrongfully rotting in a cell. That said, there’s so much meat to Warner’s story, so much wrong, we get the sense it would have been better suited to a documentary format.
In lieu of that, Crown Heights is worth seeing for its position in a broader context. Warner’s horror is one that resonates with us because it’s presented on a personal level, as a one-off story. But the film’s most sobering moment comes in the coda, when it reveals that of the 2.4 million prisoners in the United States, an estimated 120,000 are innocent.
There’s no Shawshankian catharsis here. Warner won his freedom, but it’s not really a victory. He lost two decades of his life, and the American legal system is broken. Crown Heights may not have the answers, but it certainly provokes the search for some.
Director: Matt Ruskin
Starring: Lakeith Stanfield, Nnamdi Asomugha, Natalie Paul
Theater: Opens Friday, AMC Rosedale