×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Sundance Film Review: ‘Crown Heights’

With:
Lakeith Stanfield, Nnamdi Asomugha, Natalie Paul, Amari Cheatom, Skylan Brooks, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Nestor Carbonell, Zach Grenier, Bill Camp.

In case anyone needs a reminder, the fight against unjust policing in black communities long predates the cases that have dominated headlines in recent years, and Matt Ruskin’s film “Crown Heights” shines a spotlight on one particularly egregious injustice that stretched from the dawn of the 1980s all the way to the start of the current millennium. Essentially structured like a reverse “Law & Order” episode — in which we are first walked step-by-step through the legal travails of an innocent man, then see exactly how the crime was committed and investigated — the film sketches an effective, if ultimately somewhat schematic, picture of the legal system’s countless crevasses and sinkholes into which a blameless person can easily be shoved.

Crown Heights” doesn’t break much new ground, and it takes a while to find its footing, but thanks to strong, unshowy performances from Lakeith Stanfield and Nnamdi Asomugha, the film does project the feelings of helplessness and frustration that come from fighting against such an immovable object. Adapted from a “This American Life” episode that detailed the case of Colin Warner (Stanfield), who spent 20 years behind bars for murder before being freed in 2001, the movie offers an interesting companion piece to Ava DuVernay’s documentary “13th,” and ought to receive a look from festivals going forward.

As the film opens, we’re granted a brief sketch of Colin’s quiet Crown Heights existence before his life is abruptly upended. Colin is a teenage Trinidadian immigrant, studying to become a mechanic and occasionally stealing cars on the side. We’ve scarcely been introduced to him, however, when he’s snatched off of the Brooklyn streets by two detectives, whose questioning soon reveals that they suspect Colin not of grand theft auto, but rather of perpetrating a Flatbush murder that he’s entirely unaware of. Looped together with the actual murderer in a double trial, Colin is convicted despite a complete lack of motive, murder weapon, or physical evidence, all on the strength of testimony from a jittery 15-year-old (Skylan Brooks) who recants while on the stand.

Popular on Variety

As Colin painfully adjusts to life in prison – and begins a visiting-hours courtship with childhood friend Antoinette (Natalie Paul), who eventually becomes his wife – his dilemma becomes increasingly Kafka-esque. Though a sympathetic judge made sure to award him the shortest possible sentence (15 years to life), Colin can’t be considered for parole until he expresses remorse for the crime he didn’t commit, and hence he remains in prison long after the crime’s admitted perpetrator has been released. On the outside, his friend and fellow Trinidadian Carl King (Asomugha) knocks doors and fund-raises for Colin’s appeal.

As good as Stanfield is in the lead — the actor’s typical laidback demeanor proves an asset here, as he limns a very slow burn from dazed disorientation into focused anger — the film doesn’t really kicks into gear until in the later going, as Carl becomes the de facto protagonist. Through his eyes, we get to see just how stacked the deck is against the wrongfully accused, as Carl risks his marriage, changes careers, goes into debt, and sometimes wanders into perilous situations to try to buy his friend another shot at freedom, even after Colin himself has all but given up. A former member of the NFL’s Oakland Raiders and a producer on the film, Asomugha really comes into his own as an actor in this role, dialing down the heroic aggrandizement and instead stressing the sheer weariness that such dedication enacts.

The film’s necessarily episodic structure occasionally works against it, however, and we spend so much time away from Colin in prison that the denouement doesn’t hit with quite the impact that the moment deserves. Nonetheless, director Ruskin makes a clever choice by demarcating the passing of time via footage of presidents Reagan, Bush, and Clinton reaching for applause lines with tough-on-crime rhetoric. When a despondent Colin asks Carl why he continues to fight the seemingly hopeless case, he responds: “This isn’t just about you; it’s bigger than that. It could have been me.” Until this point, race has more often been the elephant-sized subtext behind all of the legal wrangling.

Ruskin has a solid feel for the film’s bygone Brooklyn milieu, and supporting roles are uniformly well-cast, with Brooks and Bill Camp making particularly strong impressions.

Sundance Film Review: 'Crown Heights'

Reviewed at CAA, Century City, Jan. 12, 2017. (In Sundance Film Festival — competing.) Running time: 96 MIN.

Production: A Washington Square Films presentation in association with Black Maple Films of an Iam21 production. Producers: Nnamdi Asomugha, Natalie Galazka, Matt Ruskin. Executive producers, Jonathan Baker, Joshua Blum, Lila Yacoub, Anya Bourg, Troy Johnson, Avy Kaufman, Alissa Shipp.

Crew: Director/writer: Matt Ruskin, based on WBEZ Chicago’s “The American Life” episode “DIY” by Anya Bourg. Camera (color): Ben Kutchins. Editor: Paul Greenhouse.

With: Lakeith Stanfield, Nnamdi Asomugha, Natalie Paul, Amari Cheatom, Skylan Brooks, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Nestor Carbonell, Zach Grenier, Bill Camp.

More Film

  • Robert De Niro, Martin Scorsese and

    Film News Roundup: Leonardo DiCaprio Presenting Robert De Niro SAG Life Achievement Award

    In today’s film news roundup, Leonardo DiCaprio will present Robert De Niro with his SAG Life Achievement Award, the Oliver Sacks documentary finds a home and UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television gets a new dean. AWARD PRESENTATION Leonardo DiCaprio has been selected to present Robert De Niro the SAG Life Achievement Award  at [...]

  • KARNAWAL

    ‘Karnawal,’ ‘Restless,’ ‘Summer White,’ ‘Firsts’ Win Big at Ventana Sur

    BUENOS AIRES  — With Ventana Sur now firing on multiple cylinders, featuring pix-in post or project competitions for not only art films but also genre pics and animation – two sectors embraced by young creators in Latin America – “Karnawal,” “Restless,” “Summer White” and  “Firsts” proved big winners among Ventana Sur’s arthouse and animation competitions, [...]

  • (center) George MacKay as Schofield in

    From "1917" to "Jojo Rabbit," Composers of Some of the Year's Top Scores Talk Shop

    “1917,” Thomas Newman The 20-year collaboration of director Sam Mendes and composer Thomas Newman has encompassed midlife crisis (“American Beauty”), crime in the Depression (“Road to Perdition”), the Gulf War (“Jarhead”), marriage in the 1950s (“Revolutionary Road”) and two James Bond adventures (“Skyfall,” “Spectre”). Now they’ve tackled World War I, with “1917,” but Mendes’ much-talked-about [...]

  • Billy Magnussen Aladdin

    'Aladdin' Spinoff With Billy Magnussen's Character in the Works for Disney Plus

    Disney is developing a spinoff of its live-action “Aladdin” with Billy Magnussen reprising his Prince Anders character. The unnamed project is in early development for the studio’s recently launched Disney Plus streaming service. Disney has hired Jordan Dunn and Michael Kvamme to write a script centered on the haughty Prince Anders, one of Princess Jasmine’s [...]

  • ROAD TRIP – In Disney and

    Disney Boasts a Bevy of Hopefuls for Oscar's Original Song Race

    When the Academy announces its shortlist for song nominations on Dec. 16, you can be certain that at least one Disney song will be on it and probably more. Disney songs have been nominated 33 times in the past 30 years, winning 12 of the gold statuettes. This year, the studio has at least four [...]

  • Innovative Scores Elevated the Year's Documentaries

    Innovative Scores Elevated the Year's Documentaries

    It’s next to impossible for a documentary score to be Oscar-nominated alongside the dozens of fictional narratives entered each year. But it did happen, just once: In 1975, composer Gerald Fried was nominated for his music for “Birds Do It, Bees Do It,” a documentary on the mating habits of animals. Fried, now 91, perhaps [...]

  • Ron Leibman, Jessica Walter'Mary Stuart' Play

    Ron Leibman, Tony-Winning Actor Known for 'Angels in America' and 'Friends,' Dies at 82

    Ron Leibman, an Emmy-winning actor who garnered a Tony for his work in Broadway’s “Angels in America” and played the father of Jennifer Aniston’s Rachel Green on “Friends,” died on Friday. He was 82. Robert Attermann, CEO of Abrams Artists Agency, confirmed the news to Variety. No further details were immediately available. Leibman, a native [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content