“Crown Heights” tells the story of a grotesque miscarriage of justice.
An 18-year-old Brooklyn man, Colin Warner (Lakeith Stanfield) is arrested, tried, convicted and sentenced to life in prison for a killing he did not commit.
He wasn’t there. He didn’t know the victim. It made no difference.
The story is true.
The story is appalling.
A central component of the story is racism. Warner, a native of Trinidad, is black, as are the witnesses the police coerced to place him at the scene of the crime.
The cops who arrest him, the detectives who interrogate him and intimidate those witnesses into giving false testimony, the guards who beat him in prison, the parole board that refuses to parole him are all white.
In prison, he says, he was made to feel “like I wasn’t even a person.”
His ordeal, which begins in 1980, lasts 21 years.
Despite all that, “Crown Heights” is ultimately a story about incredible courage and hope.
Working closely with Warner and his best friend Carl “KC” King (played in the movie by Nnamdi Asomugha), writer-director Matt Ruskin keeps a laserlike focus on one central fact: Warner’s steadfast insistence on his innocence.
Stanfield, in a performance of quiet power, fully inhabits Warner’s agony at the injustice being done to him.
“They took everything from me,” he asserts, yet they can’t break him, despite setback after setback, despite a series of legal appeals that are turned down, despite the passage of years, six, 12, 15, more marked on screen.
He feels despair, yet, “I know I have to live to clear my name.”
His despair is alleviated by the fact the world outside has not abandoned him. His friend KC works tirelessly to raise money for his legal fees, raising it from people in the Crown Heights neighborhood, using his own money to the point he jeopardizes his marriage.
Also in Warner’s corner is a childhood friend, Antoinette (Natalie Paul), with whom he falls in love and marries while in prison.
Together they offer hope, but hope turns out to be a two-edged sword.
As the years go by and his expectations of exoneration are repeatedly dashed, he tells KC to stop trying to help him. It hurts too much to sustain hope.
But KD tells his friend he won’t quit him.
“It’s not just you,” he says. “It’s bigger than that.”
The injustice being done to Warner is emblematic of the injustices visited on other black men victimized by the legal meat grinder.
What Warner undergoes in “Crown Heights” is difficult to watch. Yet in the end, remarkably, there is triumph. And, finally, justice.
☆☆☆☆☆ stars out of 5
Cast: Lakeith Stanfield, Nnamdi Asomugha, Natalie Paul.
Director: Matt Ruskin
Running time: 1:39
Rated: R for language, sexuality, nudity, violence.