When I initially read Crown Heights’ description, it reminded me of Conviction, which was in theaters in 2010 ( I waited to see it on DVD), so I did not think of it as a distinct movie that had not hit theaters yet. I heard about it again from a close friend who already saw the film in the New York area and on the August 24, 2017 episode of The Daily Show when Trevor Noah interviewed Colin Warner, the subject of the film, and Nnamdi Asomugha, one of the main actors in the film who plays his best friend, Carl King. The movie is about Warner’s wrongful conviction and his eventual exoneration.
I did not want to see Crown Heights, not because I questioned its quality, but there are too many real life stories of our sacred institutions acting as altars for human sacrifice. Feature films usually focus on stories with happy endings in which a friend or family member is able to snatch their loved one from the jaws of justice. Though directly untouched, I am haunted not only by the stories depicted on screen, but the ones that are untold, the ones where people retroactively had a reasonable doubt, but the gears of justice shrugged and resignedly used the blood of the convicted to oil its works. I can imagine myself on either side of the aisle: the bureaucracy reassuring itself to trust the process or the innocent prisoner as Cassandra warning others that justice is the perpetrator.
I knew that I would go if Crown Heights came to a theater near me. I live near Boston, but that does not mean we get every movie that is playing. A film featuring black protagonists with the title of a Brooklyn neighborhood known for its Caribbean immigrant and Hasidic Jewish residents seemed an unlikely movie to appear here, but it did. I’m urging you to see a movie that may leave you simultaneously in tears of joy and outrage. It won’t feel good though the film hits the right themes of the strength of the human spirit and innate dignity to rise above any obstacles, the unity of all elements of the community, including criminals, to right a wrong, the power of love and friendship to save someone. Still none of that erases the horror that an innocent man lost twenty years, a friend lost relationships and money, a family lost the love and companionship of this innocent man, and it probably happens all the time because nothing changes.
Crown Heights takes its time finding its footing. Because Lakeith Stanfield is a magnificent actor with a movie star’s magnetism, the viewer’s investment in his charisma carries the film. The first third of the film relies heavily on casting veterans such as Zach Grenier and John Pais as the face of bureaucratic corruption, but does not adequately delineate how they are exactly railroading Warner other than reassurances from Warner’s lawyer. Matt Ruskin, the writer and director, decides to mirror Warner’s confusion by inducing it in the audience by showing a simultaneously slow and rushed court process while using eyewitness testimony as a crucial turning point in his conviction.
Normally I hate courtroom scenes in films because they are usually excuses to have lengthy monologues and wild, vindicating applause for the hero of the film, but in a film about a wrongful criminal conviction, more time should have been devoted to Warner’s time in court and in holding with the actual murder instead of the casual illustration of Warner as a criminal then a vulnerable young man. Perhaps the filmmaker thought unflinching honesty in its portrayal of Warner would garner credibility. It was germane to do so with the eyewitness, but unless Warner was literally engaging in crime when he got caught, it was not. As far as I can discern from my brief online research, he was arrested at home. I could be infected by respectability politics, but it felt like an inadvertent cinematic equivalent to the “no angel” comment usually found in print and broadcast journalism.
Afterwards, Crown Heights finds its rhythm. The center of the film is primarily devoted to Warner’s mental journey in the penal system. The film nailed depicting Warner’s internal life then jarring return to reality. There is no orientation in jail so he struggles to make a home in a hostile territory and takes some missteps-some inadvertent and some simply human, but all unavoidable. As a descendant of a Caribbean descendant, I appreciated that Ruskin visually captured the importance of an old black woman in a floral lounge dress/nightgown. He is briefly transported to a space that feels close to home in the courtyard and reminds him of the flavors, camaraderie and feel of the island, but it is still part of the trap. Ruskin excels at details. I noticed that the black women guards were the gossamer, civilizing boundary standing in between the brutality of other guards and inmates. Without their presence, institutional abuse ensued.
Crown Heights also tackles how hard it is for someone from the outside to enter this world even for an innocent loved one and sustain a semblance of a continuous life in both worlds. The central relationship that represents this is Warner and his best friend. King’s journey to raise funds and early fumbles are essential viewing for anyone not practicing law. I am thrilled that there is a scene that compares and contrasts the prowess of a lawyer in his office versus the courtroom. Warner’s romantic relationship also denotes this difficulty. Antoinette, Warner’s wife, is the right kind of ride or die chick. She has a life when she is informed of Warner’s plight, but she was always attracted to him, not his notoriety, and her belief in his innocence rooted in that experience is their bond. One scene shows how she has to emotionally brace herself before plunging back into Warner’s life. Her support is not taken for granted.
Crown Heights is at its most comfortable when it finally has a genre to cling to: a mystery legal thriller solved by an intrepid, unlikely investigator, Warner’s friend, King. Ruskin probably avoided a detailed courtroom proceeding in the first third to reveal the real story of the murder of sixteen-year old Mario Hamilton at the end. This move unfortunately reflects real life. This portion of the film is the most dynamic because the audience can easily relate to and root for King as he explores the intricacies of the legal system and uses his own street smarts to advance in that world. It also gives us an opportunity to meet new characters and humanize ones that we met in the first third. In the fictional realm, we are used to intrepid heroes such as this one in Grisham novels except not so black, working class and with an accent, which gave me an unexpected thrill and made me realize that Hollywood is missing out on some untapped box office appeal. The real twist is the unlikely people who end up helping him who, with time, show more of a desire for justice than the ones who actually are paid and have that responsibility. Ruskin never loses sight of the fact that two lives were lost: Hamilton and Warner.
Ruskin punctuates time passing by inserting clips of various politicians, local and national, consistently talking tough about crime and punishment interspersed with images of injustice against Warner. Ruskin hears the dog whistle that is still being blown today that tough on crime can actually just be institutional victimization if the government cares more about process instead of people. Crown Heights may not be a perfect film, but it is a necessary one when a reactionary wave mistakenly equates nostalgia for the old as good.
Sarah G. Vincent is an infovore who is originally from NYC and has lived in Massachusetts since 1993. She received an A.B., cum laude, in History and Film Studies from Harvard University in 1997 and received a J.D. from Harvard Law School in 2000, where she was also an editor and arts reporter at the Crimson/FM and worked at the Harvard Film Archives. After graduating from Harvard Law School, she published “The Cultural Context of the Shopping Mall: Tension Between The Patron’s Right of Access and the Owner’s Right to Exclude.” She is in a committed, exclusive spiritual relationship with the Triune God and for more information, directs readers to look at the Apostle’s Creed.