An uncaring system putting blameless men behind bars has been a cinematic staple as far back as Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Wrong Man” and likely further. But few examples have been as effective as the fact-based “Crown Heights.”
Winner of Sundance’s coveted audience award in dramatic competition, “Crown Heights” is adapted from an episode of public radio’s “This American Life” and named after the Brooklyn neighborhood where its main characters live and work.
As written and directed by Matt Ruskin, the film is finely balanced between two parallel sets of astonishments. One that an innocent man, Colin Warner, could spend 20 years in prison after being handed a potential life sentence on the flimsiest of evidence.
The other, equally amazing, is that people who loved and believed in Warner fought for years against inertia and crushing difficulty to get him out. What the good people do is as powerful as the bad here, and that makes all the difference.
Acted with gravity, emotion and a sense of the serious issues involved by stars Lakeith Stanfield, Nnamdi Asomugha and Natalie Paul, “Crown Heights” deals with the intensely human factors tragic events bring into play — perseverance and despair, love and longing.
But this film also demonstrates what a miscarriage of justice feels like from the inside, becoming a powerful indictment of how much damage a heedless and uncaring system can do to an impotent individual caught in its grinding wheels.
And while issues of institutional racism and class play a undeniable part in the story, “Crown Heights” is more potent for not foregrounding them, for letting us experience for ourselves how stacked society’s deck can be.
Given that even a cursory peek online reveals lists with titles like “Top 10 Films About the Wrongfully Convicted,” one of “Crown Heights’ ” most impressive accomplishments is how individual its story feels, filled with unnerving specific twists that are anything but generic.
This is in part due to the time writer-director Ruskin spent getting to know and understand the two men whose lives are the basis for the film, plus the filmmaking ability needed to compress a complex, multi-year story into something comprehensible and involving.
“Crown Heights” has also been fortunate that the power of its narrative attracted committed actors who effectively convey its essence. Asomugha, a former NFL star, is excellent as the best friend who simply would not give up. Paul is just as strong as an old flame who reenters Warner’s life. But the best work, as it would have to be, is Stanfield’s on-fire performance as the man inside.
With hair in dreadlocks and his large, soulful eyes, Stanfield, who made an impressive debut in “Short Term 12" and went on to the FX series “Atlanta,” is in such complete command of the righteous anger and bottomless despair alternating in Warner that he seems to be living the story more than acting it.
“Crown Heights” opens with the 18-year-old Warner, who was born in Trinidad, living with his tough-love mother in an apartment located in the titular Brooklyn neighborhood.
Warner repairs cars in a local garage, but he is not above stealing the occasional vehicle to boost his income. He’s in stolen wheels when he’s arrested, but the police have something more serious in mind.
Much to his complete shock, Warner is detained, on the testimony of a putative eyewitness, for the murder in nearby Flatbush of a man he didn’t know and never even heard of. Despite being told it will go easier for him if he cooperates, Warner refuses to admit to being part of something he had nothing to do with.
Once incarcerated, Warner finds out from a fellow prisoner who the real murderer was, but no one in authority seems very interested. Best friend Carl King (Asomugha) believes “the truth is going to come out,” but it does not turn out to be that simple.
First of all, even getting to a trial date turns out to take years, and one of the points “Crown Heights” makes is how the indifference of the system leads to unconscionable delays.
More than that, the film emphasizes how, in a tough-on-crime era, neither police nor prosecutors nor jury members saw any reason to look past what was presented as eyewitness testimony.
Ironically, the only person at Warner’s trial who seems to understand the suspect nature of that testimony is the judge, but all he can do is apply the minimum sentence, 15 years to life.
At this point “Crown Heights” very effectively works on two parallel tracks, what happens to Warner inside prison and the lengths King — aghast at what can happen to an innocent man — goes to in trying to get him freed.
The difficulty of not only surviving behind bars but maintaining your integrity, “to refuse,” as Warner puts it, “to be what they label me,” is very effectively conveyed here, as the innocent man has to navigate prison’s intricate politics as well as withstand years spent in solitary confinement.
On the outside, King proves to be indefatigable, raising money, changing careers, dealing with all kinds of attorneys, both helpful and not, and doing it with such time-consuming zeal he puts near-fatal strains on his marriage.
One ironic way “Crown Heights” shows us time passing is by playing clips of a variety of politicians from Bill Clinton to New York Gov. George Pataki talking tough on crime. What happened to Colin Warner may be history, but the issues it raises are with us still.
Rating: R, for language, some sexuality/nudity, and violence
Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes
In limited release.