Crown Heights (2017)
SHOULD I SEE IT?
Colin Warner's story is one that deserves to be told.
Quietly, and somewhat under the radar, Lakeith Stanfield has put together an impressive and diverse list of performances. Crown Heights finally gives him the chance to breakout on his own.
Adapted from NPR's "This American Life" radio program/podcast, Crown Heights has a real, documentary-like feel in key scenes which propel the movie forward.
There are better-made movies which tell similar stories more effectively and emotionally.
The specific pace and tone to the film makes it feel much longer than it is. These are some laboring 94 minutes.
A film which moves from a behind-bars drama into a court and police procedural and never quite knows where to commit most of its energy.
Writer Anya Bourg first told the story of Colin Warner on an episode of the popular NPR radio show and podcast, "This American Life." Spanning two hour-long episodes, Warner's story was that of a real-life American nightmare.
A young, 20-something Trinidadian immigrant from the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, Warner (Lakeith Stanfield) engages in the occasional criminal behavior of stealing cars, for example, but is also putting himself through trade school, studying to be a mechanic. An ambiguous opening sequence informs us that someone was murdered in the neighborhood, and not too long after the incident, Warner finds himself being chased down by two Brooklyn police officers.
Warner learns that he has been arrested, not for stealing a car, but rather for the murder of a teenager, a crime he defiantly swears he had nothing to do with. The police drum up a witness, a 15-year-old kid, who identifies Warner by a photo in a series of mugshots. Warner, on trial with another young man for murder charges, is convicted by an all-white jury, despite a lack of motive, weapon, tangible evidence, and the 15-year-old witness changing his story on the stand.
This is outrageous. We recognize it, feeling despair, and watching an encroaching panic engulf Warner as he begins to serve time. Stanfield's performance is haunting, realistic, and powerful in the film's first chapters. He nails the accent, absorbs into Warner as a character, and uses his eyes and facial expressions to convey terror that shouts out loud, as words fail him terribly.
His best friend, a fellow Trinidad transplant named Carl King, nicknamed "KC" (Nnamdi Asomugha, also a producer on the film), steps in for much of the film's second half. KC has no doubt that his best friend would never commit an act so heinous, but efforts to be heard fall on deaf ears. So he persists, and investigates. Warner's friend from his childhood, Antoinette (Natalie Paul), becomes a second ally on the outside, soon falling in love and marrying Warner from inside prison.
Writer and director Matt Ruskin has all the best intentions and tells this story in a controlled, impassioned way. Perhaps too controlled at times, as Crown Heights feels a bit rudimentary and labored in execution.
In going back and listening to Bourg's "This American Life" piece, she is able to establish more depth and emotion from a narrative that organically gives rise to an anger and outrage intensifying with each new detail. Ruskin's film is something we have seen many times before. And while Warner's story is important, in a continual attempt to understand the experiences of People of Color in America, Ruskin seems unable to illustrate visually what Bourg creates vividly through audio and interviews with the real participants.
As Ruskin turns Crown Heights into two halves - one setting up Warner's arrest through incarceration, the other a police procedural trying to free Warner from a minimum 15-year prison sentence, Stanfield steals the show.
Absent for a large portion of the second half of the film, Stanfield cedes screen time to former NFL superstar Asomugha, holding his own in anchoring the "Law & Order"-style elements of the film. KC finds allies in a husband and wife legal team (Bill Camp, Sarah Goldberg), along with the support of Antoinette, and others to try and uncover irrefutable proof of Warner's innocence.
By the end, Ruskin connects the dots pretty well and we are left with an ulcerating pit in our stomach. Warner is one of countless people of color, wronged by the criminal justice system, who lost more than 20 years of his life senselessly, jailed for a crime he did not commit.
Though the film is not all that unique, Asomugha and Stanfield give us much emotional real estate to survey. Stanfield is a special young talent, adding this stunning, authentic portrayal to an already impressive resume, which includes supporting turns in Get Out, Short Term 12, Selma, Straight Outta Compton, and the television series "Atlanta."
Colin Warner's tale is a story of survival, human resolve, and unwavering loyalty. In and of itself his is an inspiring tale, existing in a decent film, which should continue to give Lakeith Stanfield more and more opportunities to prove he is one of the most talented young actors we have right now.
CAST & CREW
Starring: Lakeith Stanfield, Nnamdi Asomugha, Natalie Paul, Amari Cheatom, Skylan Brooks, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Nestor Carbonell, Zach Grenier, Bill Camp, Sarah Goldberg.
Director: Matt Ruskin
Written by: Matt Ruskin.
Adapted from an episode, in 2005, of NPR radio program, "This American Life", entitled "DIY", written by Anya Bourg.
Release Date: August 18, 2017