Lakeith Stanfield is in the midst of a breakout year with roles in the smash hit Get Out, the Netflix movie War Machine, and now the haunting powerful story of Crown Heights, which tells the story of Colin Warner’s wrongful imprisonment that lasted for over 20 years. Co-starring with Stanfield in Crown Heights is Nnamdi Asomugha, whom most people would recognize from his illustrious career in the NFL playing for the Raiders, Eagles, and 49ers. Now Asomugha is focusing on work within the cinema as an actor and producer through his own production company. Written and directed by Matt Ruskin, Crown Heights was a smash at Sundance before it was picked up by IFC Films and Amazon Studios who will release the film theatrically before making it available on Amazon’s own streaming service.
“I wasn’t aware of the This American Life piece. I got onto that a little bit later and obviously was blown away every time you hear the story. There was this 5-minute documentary piece our amazing director Matt Ruskin put together and was sending it around and it made its way to me. So I asked about the script because the documentary was so powerful about the two guys. The script came and I auditioned and got the part and that’s how it came to me,” Nnamdi Asomugha said of the origins of his involvement in the film.
“I didn’t know that I was looking for that until it came my way. I was looking to speak to some social issues surrounding, just injustice that’s happening within the scope of the administrative world. Also I like talking about issues surrounding race, which I feel plays a role in this and a lot of stories like this,” Lakeith Stanfield said of his early involvement. “So when the script came my way I thought it was a perfect opportunity to dance in that world. And I realized while doing research for this that there is a huge problem with mass incarceration in the country, particularly with people for crimes that don’t fit the sentence or for crimes they didn’t commit. It just made sense for me to move forward with this and it came at a dope time, but it was really Matt Ruskin who unearthed this story and brought it to my attention.”
Lakeith Stanfield has no pretensions about the impact Crown Heights will have on the national dialogue. “I hope that it will start a conversation. I’m not under the pretense that it’ll start a revolution but I do think that the more we talk about these kinds of things the closer we are coming to understanding it and hopefully through engaging in that conversation we can get to mobilizing and institute some kind of change,” the actor said. “A lot of people are certainly ignorant to things like this, so this movie and movies like this will provide a platform to come into contact with the subject matter which is great. Also, deeper than that for me, it’s telling the story of a real man who went through all of this stuff and his family and him get to have the dope kind of reassurance that their story is being told and by virtue of that this might happen a little bit less. That for me is the biggest thing.”
While a heartbreaking story of a miscarriage of justice, Nnamdi Asomugha wants to emphasize the film’s inspirational aspects in his character Carl, who worked tirelessly to prove Colin Warner’s innocence.
“It’s also a story of inspiration, of love and hope and friendship,” the football player turned actor and producer said. “You see what Colin went through which is unimaginable by all accounts but you also see what one man can do by, you know, galvanizing a community to get behind him and right a wrong. So I think we can focus on the negative of it and try to change it we can also take into account the fact that one man can make a difference.”
Each actor went through a vigorous preparation process for their roles in Crown Heights. “I went around to a host of prisons. Mainly what I did was listen to inmates there and listen to their stories. I sort of had to take it with a grain salt knowing that most people believe they’re innocent whether or not they really are. Really just get into a deeper conversation about what landed people here and talk about justice and what they feel justice means to them in accordance with the law. Just talk to people in there from all walks of life and really see how their dispositions have changed in comparison to people I see who are free, so I could attempt to absorb that,” Stanfield said of one aspect of his preparation.
“I hung out with Colin Warner himself, which proved to be very great. He introduced me to his family and the Yoruba religion, which I was unaware of before. He took me to a shrine and kind of blessed me. I took that and moved forward with it. I needed that because I needed to maintain focus on something I knew would be very difficult to try and take on having not spent a day in prison. I didn’t just want to pretend I was just a dude in prison. I wanted to have his spirit,” the actor elaborated on his time with Colin Warner.
“For me, I spent a lot of time with Carl. That was my first stance. Let me try to know the man who would do something like what he did. That was fascinating,” Asomugha said of spending time with his character’s real life individual. “I spent a lot of time with him. A couple weeks we were in Crown Heights and I got to be around the culture, and it was around the time of – around Labor Day there’s this big festival, the West Indian Festival. We were there for that, so I was just able to be around him, his family and the culture, and listened to a lot of music. Music played a big role, the Mighty Sparrow, he’s like the most famous Trinidadian Calypso singer. Just trying to get into the vibe of the whole thing. When I spent time with Carl we went to all five of the boroughs and did process server work because that’s what he did for a living.”
The film wasn’t always called Crown Heights. It went through a number of titles before reaching Sundance with its current title. “Before Crown Heights it was Darker than Blue, and then it went through a whole bunch of titles,” Asomugha, who is also a producer on the film, said. “Darker than Blue worked but in many way it didn’t. We didn’t want it come across as an anti-cop film. It’s not an anti-cop film but this moment did happen. We didn’t want it to be this whole thing of every cop is bad and that sort of thing. Finally we came to Crown Heights because we realized that Crown Heights really saved Colin. It was Carl and the community that was there when this happened and they were all from Crown Heights. It was kind of a big up to everyone that was involved.”
Currently, Nnamdi Asomugha’s former employer, the NFL, is going through a bit of controversy that has been spearheaded by the protests started by Colin Kaepernick, a quarterback who is currently an unemployed free agent, something many believe is a direct result of his protests.
“I think any medium that you have to make a statement or to voice your opinion or to add to the conversation matters. For some people, it’s through sports. For us, it was art, activism through art,” Asomugha said when asked about Kaepernick’s protests and his own social commentary through art. “You know, it could be running for Congress. You could just bring people in your community together to watch films that speak to a certain issue and have a conversation about it and move into action. I respect anyone who uses whatever platform they have to get their point across.”
For Lakeith Stanfield, he believes that art has a critical role in the larger social conversation and it’s something the rising star seeks out in his roles. “I think there’s a level of responsibility to, if nothing else, to be honest and be truthful and there’s so much out there that isn’t truthful. I think that’s what we try to do. Every role I try to play I just try to be honest. If it’s involving a social issue, I think it’s even more important that I’m just being raw with it, as I like to call it,” the actor said.
“Life and a lot of things that happen in life they make us uncomfortable,” he continued. “Sometimes I think protests, like Kaepernick and others, make people uncomfortable, but I think sometimes that’s what’s necessary to make us realize that there’s something to be discussed and talked about. So I’m interested in doing things that push me into uncomfortable places, so I have to confront these questions in myself and hopefully when people watch it they are confronted with those questions and conflicts within themselves. I never set out to be like, ‘Oh, I’m just going to do…’ it just happens that this type of material speaks to me and I can only do work that speaks to me. I try to find projects that I identify with and move forward with those, and a lot of times the ones that aren’t speaking about anything, while fun, I see no value in doing it just to do it.”