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.
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.