The problems within the American criminal justice system are many, and they’ve been explored in various forms of media over the decades. It’s not in doubt that black men in America are incarcerated at a disproportionate rate, and the roots of which have been explored in documentaries like Ava DuVernay’s The 13th. It’s hard to confront these ugly truths about our nation but we have to if justice is ever going to really mean something in our society. An egregious miscarriage of justice is the subject of the new film from writer-director Matt Ruskin. Crown Heights tells of the story of Colin Warner, an immigrant from Trinidad who was wrongfully arrested and convicted for a murder he didn’t commit. For over 20 years, an innocent man rotted in prison as the man who committed the heinous act was freed on parole. Crown Heights is a powerful, haunting work of cinema that is often hard to watch because these uncomfortable truths of the criminal justice system are flashed right before our eyes.
Colin Warner (Lakeith Stanfield) is trying to make a living in Brooklyn. To use an oft-overused phrase often meant to justify violence against minorities, he wasn’t an angel. Though he studied to become a mechanic, Colin would also sometimes steal cars to sell as a means to supplement his income. One fateful night, Colin is arrested while walking home. He suspects that his arrest is connected to the car we’ve seen him life earlier in the film, but in fact it’s for a homicide that occurred in the neighborhood. Unscrupulous police detectives and prosecutors exert pressure on witnesses to place Colin at the scene, even though he was nowhere near the murder. Witness perjure themselves. The facts are ignored. And though he’s on trial with the actual killer whom he doesn’t know, Colin is sentenced to 15 years to life for his role in a murder he didn’t commit.
As Colin is forced into the brutal world of prison, his cousin Carl King (Nnamdi Asomugha) works tirelessly to prove Colin’s innocence. For Carl, he raises funds for lawyers that fail to follow through on their promises of justice. Carl’s persistence comes at a personal cost, creating a rift between himself and his wife Briana (Marsh Stephanie Blake). Throughout it all, Colin perseveres, getting his education and eventually marrying his neighborhood sweetheart Antoinette (Natalie Paul). For anything that goes his way, there’s always another setback to clearing his name, be it through the appeals process or parole.
Every day, Colin wakes up and whispers, “Please don’t let it be a cell.” It’s a heartbreaking mantra for a soul wrongfully imprisoned. Lakeith Stanfield continues his breakout year with another performance in a socially conscious film that has strong relevance to issues plaguing our society today. You feel the pain of Colin through Stanfield’s excellent performance. The most surprising performance of Crown Heights comes from Nnamdi Asomugha, the former standout cornerback for the Raiders and Eagles. The football star turned actor, who also serves as the film’s producer, gives a strong, nuanced performance as the cousin that won’t allow this miscarriage of justice to stand no matter the cost. It creates an interesting dynamic between these two characters, each facing a different kind of prison because there were those willing to lie in order secure another conviction.
As the time passes through the decades as the story progresses, Matt Ruskin carefully places archival footage of powerful white men giving speeches about the “crime problem,” each calling for harsher penalties including the death penalty. It’s a stark reminder that’s never heavy-handed that miscarriages of justice such as Colin Warner’s case are perpetuated by a political landscape that encourages conviction and punishment, a statistic that can be sold to scared voters. Ruskin also flows back and forth in time to the events of that fateful day, presenting the inciting incident from a few angles before giving us the whole picture. It mirrors the struggle that Carl must go through in attempting to line up the facts to prove the innocence of Carl Warner.
Issues regarding the criminal justice system will continue to be a hot button issue in this country, especially with the doubling down of disastrous policy currently underway at the Department of Justice. Crown Heights is just another example of the deleterious aspects of a system that is disproportionate in how it dispenses punishment and therefore nullifies any hope for justice. It may not have the same visceral intensity of Detroit, but there’s still a haunting, relevant story behind Crown Heights that makes it a vital piece of storytelling. The story of Colin Warner is just one of many, one of many heartbreaking stories where justice isn’t served.