CROWN HEIGHTS Review: The Undue Process Of Wrongful Conviction

Lakeith Stanfield anchors this true crime procedural with another stellar performance.

The tale of Colin Warner (portrayed in Crown Heights by Lakeith Stanfield) is one that’s become all too common in the United States. An eighteen-year-old immigrant from Trinidad, Warner was picked out of a lineup as the shooter of Mario Hamilton, a fellow Brooklyn resident whose body was left to bleed out on Flatbush Avenue in 1980. Detectives questioned Hamilton’s brother and friend for hours, before they exhaustedly placed Colin at the scene. Warner was quickly snatched up by the NYPD, and sent off to maximum-security prison, where he waited two whole years for a trial. His fate in the hands of a sympathetic public defender (Nestor Carbonell), Wilson was railroaded by a witness facing his own charges (for armed robbery), who flip-flopped his account of the crime several times, finally putting the innocent man behind the wheel of a fictitious getaway vehicle. The jury found Wilson guilty of murder in the second degree, and an incredulous judge handed down the minimum sentence of fifteen years to life in New York’s Fishkill Correctional Facility.

Writer/director Matt Ruskin (Booster) presents Warner’s ordeal with rather straightforward attention to the particulars of becoming wrongfully imprisoned. Colin’s introduced as a struggling street kid – boosting cars and swapping tiny TVs to try and better himself. Yet from the moment he’s picked up by the cops, questioned by a lead dick (Zach Grenier) and the D.A. (Josh Pais), we know that he’s going to become just another anonymous number inside the judicial system. Fishkill is a gladiator academy; chewing men like him up while the rest of the prisoners train for institutionalized lives, governed by a dog-eat-dog mentality that Colin doesn’t possess.

His appeals are delayed and then dismissed without any real assistance from the men hired by his hardworking friend, Carl King (professional football player, Nnamdi Asomugha), who raises money for their fees by going door-to-door in the neighborhood. Ruskin’s movie is a procedural in the most literal sense of the term, as we bear witness to the process of a man losing two decades of his life, all while politicians (presented in stock footage during time lapse montages) pass legislature that will only work against Colin and those unfortunate enough to find themselves in his shoes. The frankness of Crown Heights is passionate and persuasive, even if the narrative often comes off hurriedly compressed.

King’s story is used as a parallel plot to illustrate how these sorts of false judicial decisions can destroy not only the prosecuted, but also those who love them. Acting as Wilson’s only true advocate in the streets, King starts pounding the pavement and chasing down witnesses, taking a job as a process server and convincing his employer (The Night Of’s Bill Camp) to help him interrogate these leads. Asomugha brings King to life as a blue-collar everyman, who knows that helping his friend will probably cost him everything (including his life’s savings and marriage), but that such flagrant injustice cannot be ignored. Just as we get into the nitty-gritty of incarceration alongside Colin, Carl quickly learns how to become a gumshoe, without anything in his life properly preparing him for these days. Ruskin’s tone is never self-righteous, nor does he canonize these men. Crown Heights is a “just the facts, ma’am” dramatic recreation, for better or worse.

Lakeith Stanfield’s enjoying a quietly compelling early career that (if there’s any true justice in this world) should blow up into superstardom. His first feature role as the troubled rhymer in Short Term 12 (’13) has given way to minor supporting turns in Selma (’14), Straight Outta Compton (’15), and Snowden (’16). His TV work in Donald Glover’s Atlanta has allowed him to cross over while still retaining a distinct sense of identity, and Adam Wingard’s Death List (’17) remake gave him his flashiest character in “L” (which he used to completely own that movie). Crown Heights lets Stanfield alternate between seething rage, teeth-gnashing despair, and quiet dignity, his mind drifting to memories of playing on the beach in Trinidad or hugging his grandmother back in Brooklyn while staring at the concrete walls of his cell. Stanfield is remarkable, especially once he finds a loving champion in Antoinette (Natalie Paul), who becomes the consummate rock he can lean on, the two taking each other’s hands in marriage even when it seems like Colin will never see another free day. There’s nothing overly showy or ostentatious about the turn, but that’s what’s so thrilling about it. Stanfield’s the perfect mix of naturalistic and charismatic, lean and soulful and ready to be matched with the perfect role that catapults him into being a household name.

Crown Heights builds to an emotional payoff we can easily predict (or already know, given the movie’s factual basis), but whose impact isn’t diluted one ounce once it arrives. Ruskin’s picture is all about the journey, though – the lows of which most human beings wouldn’t be able to survive with their spirit intact. But Colin doesn’t just survive; he thrives, holding onto his poise even after being beaten by guards and fellow inmates, all the while knowing in his heart that he shouldn’t be jailed in the first place. What could’ve been a schlocky tearjerker is instead a thorough examination of injustice, presented in humble terms sans soaring epilogues or thematic bullhorns. Crown Heights is a sturdily constructed film with a captivating central performance, shining a light on true events that are becoming all too familiar for this writer’s liking.

Crown Heights is in limited theatrical release now via IFC Films.