Directed By: Matt Ruskin
Starring: Lakeith Stanfield
Reviewed By: Hannah Woodhead
It’s inevitable that any film set in Brooklyn that grapples with racial tensions will draw comparisons to Spike Lee’s 1989 classic Do the Right Thing, but Crown Heights can’t help but take notes from it. The film, set nine years before Lee’s film, opens on a young couple in bed together, awoken by the sound of the radio, and the story takes place in the neighbouring borough to Do the Right Thing’s Bedford-Stuyvesent setting. That’s not a criticism though, and Crown Heights does enough to stand on its own two feet without re-treading familiar ground, largely due to its compelling source material. Crown Heights tells the story of Colin Warner, an eighteen-year-old trainee mechanic wrongfully imprisoned for over twenty years for a murder he didn’t commit. What makes Crown Heights all the more shocking is that it’s a true story – one that initially came to writer/director Matt Ruskin’s attention via the podcast This American Life.
Ruskin goes to great lengths to tell Warner’s story sensitively without drifting into emotional battery – he’s careful to write fully-realised characters that come to life on the screen, complete beings with flaws and complexities that make them compelling to watch. At the forefront is Lakeith Stanfield, who plays Colin Warner with such sincerity and depth of emotion it’s impossible to not feel for him. He turns from rage to despair on a dime, showing range beyond his years and solidifying himself as one of the brightest young stars in Hollywood right now. He’s joined by former-NFL star Nnamdi Asomugha, playing his best friend Carl King who’s determined to clear his name. If Crown Heights biggest asset is its incredible source material, its second is Stanfield and Asomugha – they both shine on the screen.
The remarkable part of the story is how Warner’s friends and community band together, raising money for repeated appeals and retrials – King sacrifices his marriage and thousands of dollars to help his friend’s cause, even after Colin himself gives up all hope of getting justice. It’s not just a story about Colin’s struggle, but the people his arrest impacted on outside of prison. The shocking thing about Crown Heights is that although the story begins over thirty years ago, it feels incredibly current – institutional racism in the United States is still alive and well, and stories like Colin Warner’s are not isolated incidents. It feels like an incredible current film, and despite its biographical focus, it’s a universal story that calls out the inherently flawed US legal system more concerned with arrest numbers than the truth, as well as the staggering failings of the prison system. It’s an impressive, quietly powerful film that will stay with you long after the final credits roll.