When 18-year-old Colin Warner was arrested for murder in 1980, I’m guessing he believed the truth—and a lack of credible witnesses—would set him free. But the type of shoddy defense that being poor in America gets you, along with a rabid DA eager for a conviction, resulted in Warner going to prison for 21 years before finally being freed thanks to the tireless efforts of his best friend, Carl King, who went through his own struggles and missteps to secure Warner’s release. This is the true story told in Crown Heights, from writer-director Matt Ruskin, and while we’d like to believe this type of story of wrongful conviction is extraordinary, we are told during the end titles that, in fact, hundreds of thousands of incarcerated people are likely innocent, just waiting for the right people to take their case through the long and twisted road to freedom.
The ever-present Lakeith Stanfield (Get Out, “Atlanta,” Short Term 12) plays the West Indian native Warner, who is wrongfully identified by scared, underage witnesses, and his attitude during the early stages of this harrowing process is one of disbelief more than anger. King (played by ex-NFL superstar-turned-actor Nnamdi Asomugha, who also has a production credit on the film) goes above and beyond friendship to secure a good appeals lawyer for Warner, even getting fleeced by at least one attorney. He risks the stability of his own marriage to help free his friend, becomes a legal courier for the express purpose of meeting competent lawyers, and eventually recruits William and Shirley Robedee (Bill Camp and Sarah Goldberg), who immediately see mountains of reasons the original case should have been thrown out.
Ruskin’s approach to the material can be dry and rushed at times, but Stanfield’s open-faced desperation is remarkable and stirring as he once again transforms himself, as he does again and again in role after role. Not to sell Asomugha short; his portrayal of King is so remarkable that he exudes compassion and faith in his friend every time he’s on screen. He even re-introduces Warner to his future wife, Antoinette (Natalie Paul), who visits Warner and falls in love (and even manages to have his children while he’s in prison). The Antoinette character is mostly underwritten, but she provides a voice of stability in the work that helps smooth out the occasional emotion upheaval.
Crown Heights isn’t just a movie about a wronged man seeking justice; it’s about a community in New York (one of many, I’m sure) that is maligned and otherwise wronged on a regular basis. Ruskin’s use of locations (some of them, the actual Crown Heights streets where the events took place) adds an element of authenticity to the mix. Add to that Stanfield’s defiantly measured performance (a scene that depicts Warner’s first appearance before a parole board is especially devastating), and Crown Heights can often be quite effective. It’s not a film without deep flaws in the storytelling devices, but it’s one that wears its passion on its sleeve without shame, and I applaud that from time to time.