'Crown Heights': Film Review | Sundance 2017
Lakeith Stanfield plays Colin Warner, wrongly imprisoned for murder, in Matt Ruskin's drama.
Up-and-comer Lakeith Stanfield, who since his bracing debut in Short Term 12 has played such colorful characters as Snoop Dogg (in Straight Outta Compton) and Darius, the unpredictable foil to Donald Glover in Atlanta, takes on a weightier role in Crown Heights, Matt Ruskin's telling of a true wrongful-imprisonment story. As Colin Warner, an immigrant Brooklynite who spent two decades in jail for a murder he had no connection to, Stanfield's job is largely to embody endurance onscreen, waiting out the innumerable setbacks facing his attempts to clear his name. Righteous but drier than some similar features, the film will rely largely on its timeliness to attract audiences, hoping that ongoing attention to the incarceration of black men will help it reach art houses.
Warner, part of a community of West Indian immigrants in Brooklyn, was no saint. As if to immunize itself against complaints that it idealizes him, the film shows him early on stealing a car he intends to sell — a clumsy theft that is one of far too few moments of humor here. But he's trying to enter the straight world, taking auto-shop classes, and had no involvement in the shooting for which cops pick him up.
The only thing linking Warner to the killing of a man he never met is the testimony of one teenager. A kid with his own cop troubles, Clarence Lewis (names and some details have been changed here) made a photo ID in one of those under-pressure, leading-questions interrogations so familiar to viewers of crime documentaries. The prosecution's evidence is horribly shaky at trial, but Warner faces an aging, white jury, and is convicted.
So begins an incarceration that will stretch long beyond Warner's 15-year sentence, mostly because of the difficulties Warner had accepting his outrageous imprisonment. Six years in, he attacked a guard who was bullying him; elsewhere, he was caught in the middle of strife between rival factions of prisoners. A scene in which he is denied parole suggests several other such incidents; Warner's calm defense may sound reasonable to us — as an innocent man, I had difficulty accepting prison, but I've gotten past that — fall on deaf ears.
The real activity in the picture happens outside, where Warner's good friend KC (Nnamdi Asomugha) has become obsessed with appealing his case. Dealing for years with unfeeling bureaucracies and shady lawyers is a thankless job, and one that costs KC a great deal. But the script offers no kind of human edge to animate the character, leaving Asomugha in a tough spot — waiting for the story to pick up when KC finally connects with some lawyers who care about the case. Meanwhile, an old neighborhood friend (Natalie Paul's Antoinette) comes to visit Colin in jail, beginning a prison romance that leads to marriage.
Perhaps cowed by respect for a real man who suffered so much, Stanfield seems reluctant to charm viewers. Warner is sympathetic, of course, but Ruskin continually requires wounded earnestness from his lead, and shows little of whatever spark of inner life must have been required for Warner to survive these years without losing his mind. (Dreamy flashbacks to the man's island youth do little toward this end.)
Weirdly, the film concludes its long procedural narrative without even mentioning the question on everyone's minds — how institutions should make amends for stealing a man's life from him. Reportedly, the real Warner won a $2.7 million settlement, but closing titles don't even hint at this — focusing instead on Warner's sheer joy at being freed and having his name cleared after so many years of hopelessness.
Production company: iAM21 Entertainment
Cast: Lakeith Stanfield, Nnamdi Asomugha, Natalie Paul, Amari Cheatom, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Nestor Carbonell, Zach Grenier, Josh Pais, Yul Vazquez, Ron Canada
Director-Screenwriter: Matt Ruskin
Producers: Nnamdi Asomugha, Natalie Galazka, Matt Ruskin
Executive producers: Jonathan Baker, Joshua Blum, Lila Yacoub
Director of photography: Ben Kutchins
Production designer: Kaet McAnneny
Costume designer: Meghan Kasperlik
Editor: Paul Greenhouse
Composer: Mark Degli Antoni
Casting director: Avy Kaufman
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Dramatic Competition)
Sales: Nick Ogiony, CAA