On April 10, 1980, Marvin Grant was shot and killed in the street in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. A couple of weeks later, 18 year old Colin Warner was arrested and charged with the murder. Warner, along with a man named Anthony Gibson, was tried and convicted of the crime, in large part due to the testimony of two witnesses who may not have actually seen the shooting. Both men were found guilty, and Colin was sentenced to fifteen years to life. Unfortunately, Colin was completely innocent.
Crown Heights tells this true story with a minimum of manufactured drama. Colin (played in the film by Lakeith Stanfield from FX’s excellent Atlanta) is not portrayed as a saint; he is a small-time criminal (the opening scenes show him stealing a car and a television) who refuses to show remorse for a crime he did not commit. The real hero of this story is Carl “KC” King (played by former NFL cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, who also produced), Colin’s friend who spends decades fighting the system in the name of justice for Colin.
The film is not anti-police. It is an indictment of a system that causes some officers to value arrest statistics over the truth. The detectives who arrest Colin are not portrayed as evil or racist; they are ignorant and uncaring. Do they know that Colin is innocent? Probably. The eyewitness accounts are incredibly shaky. But once Colin’s mugshot is pointed to, they go after with him with a fierce tunnel vision. Even after Gibson (Luke Forbes), the actual killer, says he has no idea who Colin is, they still strong-arm witnesses into testifying against Colin. It is not that they have anything against Colin personally; they do not care about him at all. They just want an arrest. If someone else’s picture had been fingered by their exhausted witness, they would have gone after them with the exact same tenacity. Their only goal is to get the case closed as quickly as possible. This is the story of a man imprisoned for a crime he did not commit, not because of police corruption, but for business reasons.
Crown Heights (93 minutes without the end credits) succeeds based on the power of its story. The performances are good, but the film works as well as it does because writer/director Matt Ruskin presents his true story like it is a true story. There is no melodrama and there are no villains. The story is Colin pleading his innocence and KC trying to prove it; no subplots are added. Crown Heights focuses on those stories and does so in a way that feels fresher than the movie sounds.
The story of a man attempting to survive in prison has been told many times by now. Wisely, Ruskin sets up that story, but then switches gears to focus on KC’s quest to get Colin exonerated. That story is new and very involving. The selfless sacrifices he makes to help his friend illuminates the sense of self-preservation in everyone else that caused Colin to be put in this predicament.
Crown Heights is a powerful story efficiently told. However, its emotions are muted and its message does not land with a lot of impact. It is trying to serve as a commentary on our justice system and how it is not always about justice. It is not able to do that quite as effectively. Yes, it is sad that there are innocent people in prison (120,000 according to the film) and what happened to Colin Warner is terrible. But by focusing more on the legal side it takes away from the human side. What makes for a more intriguing film does not necessarily make for a more emotionally powerful one. Crown Heights has made that sacrifice. The result is a film well worth seeing, but lacking the impact that would allow its story to really make a lasting impression.
3½ out of 5
Lakeith Stanfield as Colin Warner
Nnamdi Asomugha as Carl “KC” King
Adriane Lenox as Grace
Luke Forbes as Anthony Gibson
Zach Grenier as Detective Cassel
Written and Directed by Matt Ruskin