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film Review: In ‘Crown Heights,’ Justice Delayed and Denied

Like countless other black men, Colin Warner was ensnared in a system that was rigged against him in every way. The police, the prosecutors, the prison guards and some of his own lawyers cut corners, rush to judgment and ignored the clear evidence of his innocence... He spent 20 years in prison.

Lakeith Stanfield as Colin Warner in “Crown Heights.",Amazon Studios

“Crown Heights” begins with, and periodically circles back to, a real-life shooting that took place on a Brooklyn street in the spring of 1980. A jury convicted two young men of the murder, one of whom, Colin Warner, had nothing to do with it. Nonetheless, Mr. Warner spent more than 20 years in prison until, thanks in large part to the tireless efforts of his friend Carl King (known as CK), his conviction was overturned and he was released.

This story inspired a gripping, enraging episode of “This American Life,”and “Crown Heights,” written and directed by Matt Ruskin, tries to adhere both to the factual record and a careful, detail-focused documentary ethos. Like its protagonist, sensitively and shrewdly played by Lakeith Stanfield, the film is soft-spoken and thoughtful, with sweet, lyrical touches that alleviate some of the grimness without blunting the cruelty and injustice of what happened.

On the day of the murder, as Colin and CK (Nnamdi Asomugha) go about their routines, “Crown Heights” quietly registers the texture of New York life in 1980. The crime and violence that were much more prevalent then than now, but also the daily rituals of love, family and work that never really change. Colin steals a car (for the chop shop where he works), flirts with a neighbor, Antoinette (Natalie Paul), and runs an errand for his grandmother. Then all of a sudden he’s in custody, and ensnared in a bureaucratic and penal nightmare. Months stretch into years, and while CK raises money, hires lawyers and pursues appeals, Colin, incarcerated at the New York state penitentiary in Dannemora, fights to stay sane, safe and hopeful.

Our attention shifts back and forth between the two men, which provides narrative momentum at the cost of dramatic and psychological depth. CK’s devotion to the cause of his friend’s exoneration strains his marriage, and the long sequence of stalls and setbacks in court and in parole hearings erodes Colin’s morale. These developments are conveyed in scenes that feel a bit too pointed and familiar — effective in the moment but not quite as powerful as they might have been.

But “Crown Heights” nonetheless makes a powerful argument that Colin’s imprisonment was hardly an anomaly. Mr. Ruskin cuts in news clips of several generations of politicians from both parties — including Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton and former New York Gov. George E. Pataki — making tough-on-crime speeches promising longer sentences, more executions and less parole. In the meantime, the kinds of policies they promote take their toll on Colin.

Like countless other black men, he is ensnared in a system that seems rigged against him in every way. The police, the prosecutors, the prison guards and some of his own lawyers cut corners, rush to judgment and ignore the clear evidence of his innocence. You get the sense that they are part of a vast, shadowy, brutal machine, the illumination of which feels urgently necessary even as it lies outside the film’s scope.

But the choice to focus on Colin rather than on his persecutors is an honorable and ethical one, and “Crown Heights” is a moving tribute to his resilience and the steadfastness of the people who love him.


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"Crown Heights" opened this week in select theaters around the country.