CROWN HEIGHTS – Review
CROWN HEIGHTS is a gripping thriller/drama based on the true story of a teenage immigrant from Trinidad accused of murdering a man he never met. The film takes us on a harrowing journey of an innocent man’s descent into the criminal justice system but also illuminates the resilience of the human spirit and the power of friendship. Elevated by a remarkable quiet yet powerful performance by Lakeith Stanfield, CROWN HEIGHTS is as tense and nail-biting as any taut fictional crime thriller, but with the chill of truth underscoring the events.
Writer/director Matt Ruskin based his film on a true story of injustice brought to light in an episode of NPR’s “This American Life.” Colin Warner, an 18-year-old Trinidad native living in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Crown Heights in 1980, is falsely accused of murder, convicted despite the lack of evidence, and served more than twenty years until freed largely by the efforts of his staunch childhood friend Carl “KC” King.
If there is a quick take away from the chilling situation in CROWN HEIGHTS, it might be lawyer up. The true story-based drama offers a lesson in what can happen without adequate legal representation, even if you are innocent of the crime of which you are accused, even if the charge seems absurd, and especially if you are poor and non-white. The film is Kafkaesque in its litany of absurd injustices, illustrating the many ways in which an innocent person can fall between the cracks of the American criminal justice system. However, the flaws of that system are the background to an inspirational personal story of friendship.
When the film opens, 18-year-old Colin Warner (Lakeith Stanfield) is living with his mother in Crown Heights and training to become a mechanic alongside his childhood friend Carl “KC” King (former NFL player Nnamdi Asomugha). Colin is not a bad kid but no angel either. When his mother asks him to pick up their television from the repair shop, Colin steals a car rather than lug the set across town, something he does with an ease that suggests he has stolen cars before. So when the police pick him up, Colin is not surprised – until he learns the charge is murder.
Colin Warner is identified as the killer by another teen-aged Caribbean immigrant (Skylab Brooks), who Warner also had never met. The total absurdity of the situation makes Colin confident that he will be released but when that is slow to happen, he asks his friend KC to ask around in the neighborhood and find out who the real shooter is. But even with the actual suspect in hand, the authorities will not let Colin go. Instead, they peg him as the driver, and try the two jointly, so a conviction for one is a conviction for both. The killer refuses to tell authorities Colin had nothing to do with the murder, hoping Colin’s innocence might help him out. Although the one witness, a frightened 15-year-old Haitian immigrant, recants on the witness stand, the jury convicts. The judge, who suspects where guilt really lies, gives the shooter the maximum allowed sentence and Colin the minimum. The problem is the 18-year-old Colin is considered an adult and the killer is still a juvenile, and Colin’s minimum is less than the murderer’s maximum.
Colin’s false accusation took place in 1980, at the height of a crime wave in New York, and at the beginning of the Reagan era “tough on crime” wave of mandatory sentencing and prison building. In New York, overwhelmed police were trying to close cases quickly. Neither Colin nor his immigrant mother have a good grasp on how the American criminal justice system works and blindly trust the public defender. Colin is lucky in that the defender assigned to him means well but the lawyer is clearly overwhelmed as well as inexperienced.
The film cleverly marks Colin’s years in jail with clips of the various presidents giving “tough on crime” speeches emphasizing on mandatory sentencing and advocating more prisons.
A major strength of this film is the performances by both Lakeith Stanfield and Nnamdi Asomugha, who was also on of the film’s producers. Stanfield’s quiet, un-showy performance imbues Colin with a shy charm that makes him an appealing as well as sympathetic figure for the audience. Colin changes from a resentful teen to a man during his incarceration. Settling into just marking time in prison, he is jolted out of that drift by the death of his beloved grandmother back in Trinidad, a pivotal moment that motivates him to earn his GED, study law, and become a teacher to other inmates. What he always refuses to do is admit guilt for a crime he did not commit, for which he pays a heavy price.
His tentative steps towards romance with another childhood friend, Antoinette (Natalie Paul) are interrupted by the false conviction but he reconnects with her while in prison and they two fall in love and marry while he is still incarcerated. Paul also gives a warm performance, adding a softening touch to Colin’s circumstances and representing a hope for his future, and their scenes together are touching and heart-rending.
The film hearkens back to Colin’s Trinidad childhood periodically in dream-like sequences, reminding viewers of the very different world in which he grew up.
The first half of the film focuses on Colin but as his years in prison stretch out, the focus shifts to KC and efforts to free him. Asomugha shines in this second half, portraying KC’s obsessive, meticulous efforts to free his friend. His close friendship with KC, who he grew up with in Trinidad, makes them seem more like brothers but it is KC’s sense of justice that keeps him committed to freeing Colin even when Colin himself has given up. Colin’s false conviction transforms KC’s life as much as Colin’s, as the relentless KC borrows money for lawyers, endangers his own marriage, and takes a job as a process-server and legal courier as a way to learn the courts and legal system. Finally, KC re-investigates the crime and uncovers facts missed in the authorities’ hurry to get a conviction.
The story of incarceration suggests films like PAPILLON and MIDNIGHT EXPRESS but with the extra horror that this is an innocent person slipping so easily into the maw of our own criminal justice system. However, the film takes a personal focus that visually recalls last year’s MOONLIGHT. We are moved by Colin’s personal resilience but even more so by his friend KC’s commitment to justice, no matter the cost to himself.
That story of friendship might be what sticks with audiences but also a frightening awareness of how easily an innocent person can slip into the maw of our criminal justice system. CROWN HEIGHTS is a gripping film that touches audience’s hearts but makes them think as well, but it also might be a star-making role for the remarkable Lakeith Stanfield.
RATING: 4 1/2 out of 5 stars