Hot Take: Well told fact-based tale of Colin Warner, an 18-year-old from Crown Heights in New York who is wrongfully convicted of the murder of a teenager in Flatbush, Brooklyn and sentenced to life in prison told in the most positive way a story like this could be told.
The central storyline of Crown Heights is heartbreaking. Colin Warner wasn’t even in the wrong place at the wrong time in 1980 when he was fingered by an eye witness as the murderer of a teenager he never even met. Unfortunately, his mug shot made a photo lineup and once the police had a suspect, Warner’s life changed forever. In the film, Warner is played by Lakeith Stanfield and we spend most of our time with Warner behind bars as not only was Warner wrongfully arrested, tied to the actual murderer in court, Warner was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for the murder while the actual murderer received a shortened sentence because he was a minor.
Crown Heights has two main storylines. The first and most obvious is Warner and his dealing with life behind bars while knowing he was wrongfully convicted of a crime he did not commit. The other is the story of his childhood friend Carl King (Nnamdi Asomugha) who devotes much of his free time in trying to get Warner legal help in an attempt to getting him freed from his wrongful incarceration. King spends so much time engrossed in trying to get his friend free that eventually his wife leaves him and takes the children. Meanwhile, Warner watches the years melt away while he’s imprisoned. In the beginning, he makes the worst of it by getting into fights and using his seemingly endless time poorly (which leads to him spending 4 years in solitary confinement due to his behavior in prison). Eventually, he takes a different path and works on getting his education and strikes up a relationship with an old neighborhood girl (Natalie Paul) who has always been someone Colin had interest in. Despite his challenges and his initial problems with being incarcerated, Warner makes the best of the terrible situation and earns an education, gets married and even has a child all while in prison.
Eventually, the film moves toward Warner’s case and shows the way the police were able to get a conviction and get enough people to say they saw Warner with the actual murderer. It’s an example of how vulnerable our legal system can be to manipulation if those involved with enforcing the law aren’t insuring the process is being followed properly. Warner is definitely not the only case of a man wrongfully imprisoned and there’s an estimated 120,000 innocent people in prison right now. Luckily, finally, Warner isn’t one of those people thanks to the efforts made on behalf of him by his boyhood friend.
The movie does an excellent job of telling both tales. A morbid concern is that someone watching the film who is an apologist for our current system might actually see some good in Warner’s story. The film opens with him committing grand theft auto and it is obvious with the police having his photo that he didn’t have a clean record. While in prison, Warner mellows and focuses on his education, his mind and his relationship with Antoinette. He makes the best of an unfathomable situation but that doesn’t make what happened to him a good thing in any way, shape or form. Warner lost 21 years of his life for a crime he didn’t commit and the film in its brevity (94 minutes long) undersells the likely hell Warner went through behind bars. The challenge is likely the timespan. Trying to cover 21+ years of material in an hour and a half is nearly impossible. Writer/director Matt Ruskin does a lot of things well here but there’s a personal disconnect, at times, when the story moves into the legalese of the case. It’s intermittent but noticeable and has a way of making the story feel a little cold at times. It’s not the worst thing in the world because the story itself is emotionally draining as you watch both Warner and King struggle with their own demons created from one wrong accusation.
Crown Heights is not a perfect film but it comes highly recommended. It’s not the type of film that will scorch the box office or even last long in theaters. Having seen it over a week ago, it’s almost completely gone from local theaters. Give Ruskin credit for adapting the film from a This American Life podcast and bringing Warner’s tale of delayed redemption to life and Stanfield and Asomugha for breathing life into two worthy characters.
“Spoiler Free” Pros
- The Procedural Side
Ruskin does an excellent job of piecing together the facts around the failures of the criminal justice system and why the system is vulnerable in these types of cases. He doesn’t go out of his way to vilify the police or the courts but doesn’t apologize for them, either. Instead, he puts all of the facts out there for everyone to evaluate themselves and draw their own conclusions.
Former NFL player Nnamdi Asomugha takes on his biggest role yet as Carl King and is also one of the film’s co-producers. With this role, Asomugha has established that Hollywood is a legitimate life after football home for him.
“Spoiler Free” Cons
- Don’t Take It Personal
When King’s wife and children leave him in the midst of his efforts to get justice for his friend, King’s life is not affected as much on the screen as it probably was in real life. It’s as if Ruskin wanted to downplay the struggles of King to devote his time and effort into what seemed like a never-ending uphill battle.