A unique sound effect buried within the score of Matt Ruskin’s new film Crown Heights is an electronic feedback loop or sort of white noise that permeates the soundtrack, echoing the wall of obfuscation and deafness that befalls Colin Warner (Lakeith Stanfield) as he’s sent away for a murder he didn’t commit. It’s a small detail, but one that provides the film with a strong sense of purpose on just about every level as it weaves a compelling story about justice gone horribly wrong.
Based on a true story, Crown Heights begins in 1980 in a section of Brooklyn reeling from a previous year’s worth of homicides and crime that would literally send parts of the city into crumbling ruins. After a young man is shot, Warner, a local Trinidadian resident, is arrested and ultimately charged for the murder along with another man. Railroaded by the cops and district attorney’s office with a feeble and largely concocted case, Stanfield portrays Warner with a complex performance as a man initially fighting his incarceration, but ultimately giving into his confinement, both mentally and physically.
Most stories end there. However, in Warner’s case, his guardian angel resides in his childhood friend, KC King (Nnamdi Asomugha) and Crown Heights slowly shifts its focus onto King’s resilient fight outside the prison walls. While we do stay somewhat involved with Warner — including his marriage to childhood friend Antoinette (Natalie Paul) and his pursuit of a GED — Crown Heights becomes a dogged pursuit of reclaimed justice, even when the whole world has forgotten and moved on.
King, to the detriment of his own family, spends the next 20 years (yes, 20 years) pounding the pavement, collecting money and falling short with more inept lawyers before he eventually finds a willing partner in William Robedee (played by brilliant character actor Bill Camp). With this determined pair, the wheels of justice move slowly, but at least they’re moving.
If Crown Heights feels cliched in its execution, it’s only because the example of judicial breakdown has repeated itself so many times in American history, and the idea of wrongful imprisonment is continually ripe for cinematic magnification. Filmmakers love to spotlight social injustices, and Colin Warner’s case situates itself perfectly for the big screen.
Ruskin’s film (which he also wrote) succeeds against this cliche because of its magnificent performances and compact visual style that gives clarity to the confusing paper trail of old witnesses and half-remembered revisionist history. I can’t imagine a more damning piece of human frailty then when, confronted by King and another witness, a young man who made up part of his testimony slumps in his chair and mutters, “…. that man is still in there?”
Contrast that with Warner’s repeated mantra of “don’t make this a cell” and Crown Heights becomes more of an interior psychological film about mind over constricting matter than anything else. That Warner (through an Oscar worthy performance by Stanfield) refuses to believe in his box only makes his story that much more heartbreaking once the sunlight of freedom hits his face.
Crown Heights opens in the Dallas/Fort Worth area on Friday, September 1 at several locations, including the Dallas Angelika, AMC Grapevine Mills 30, AMC Parks at Arlington 18 and AMC Mesquite 30.