Based on a true story that was previously told in an unforgettable episode of “This American Life,” Matt Ruskin’s “Crown Heights” dramatizes a remarkable and enduringly relevant miscarriage of justice and the result is a thin, restless film that’s also a thrilling testament to the power of public radio.
Ruskin’s version begins on April 10, 1980, the fateful spring day when an innocent man’s life all but came to an end. Colin Warner (compellingly embodied by “Short Term 12” star Lakeith Stanfield, whose slender frame is strong enough to shoulder much of the movie) is an 18-year-old Trinidad native living in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn. He’s arrested for the murder of a local Jamaican teenager named Mark Hamilton. (In real life, Warner reluctantly volunteered himself to a local precinct after they called him in for questioning. In the film, the heavily accented immigrant is chased down by two aggressive cops who corner him in an alley and drag him down to the station.)
The police don’t have any hard evidence implicating Warner, but they don’t care about that — they only care that he has a few priors, and that a scared young witness was coerced into randomly picking his photo out of a lineup. For black men in America, the path between arrest and conviction has always been remarkably straightforward, and so in no time at all a skeptical judge hands Warner 15 years to life at a maximum security prison, the minimum possible sentence for the defendant’s supposed crime. Just like that. The greatest difficulty in achieving justice is that injustice moves much faster.
Perhaps that explains why “Crown Heights” hurtles forward through time like it’s being pulled along by the inertia of prejudice, the script eschewing scenes in favor of moments, rushing through almost every significant opportunity for pathos or character. The film doesn’t even slow down when Warner is locked in a cell with the actual killer — the one man capable of freeing him from his nightmare — leaving Stanfield to pack years’ worth of unimaginable frustration into a handful of fleeting shots.
Part of the problem is Ruskin seems unsure of how best to frame this tragic American narrative, or to whom it ultimately belongs. While half the movie stays with Warner as he slowly adjusts to prison life (glossing over years in solitary confinement in the span of a single cut), the other half focuses on Warner’s childhood friend Carl King.
Portrayed with tenacity and tremendous feeling by former NFL star Nnamdi Asomugha, King devotes his life to proving Warner’s innocence, crowdfunding money from the neighborhood in a desperate to attempt to find a lawyer who might actually give a damn about a wrongfully convicted black man. Both strands of this story are about ordinary people doing extraordinary things, but only King’s portion, which is better defined and more structured than Warner’s, provides any sense of the unfathomable perseverance required to eke the smallest measure of justice from a system that doesn’t believe you deserve any.
Despite the efforts of its cast, “Crown Heights” is too crammed and hectic to convey the immensity of the systemic evils that run through its ruptured heart. Ruskin skitters along the surface of the institutional failures that he condemns, pointing out all of the places where it ought to have dug deeper along the way. For all its noble efforts to bridge the gap between the personal and the political, “Crown Heights” ultimately falls in the space between. Everything is indicated, nothing is realized — the film’s strengths make you wish that Ruskin had made a miniseries, while its weaknesses make you grateful that Warner’s saga has already been relayed in his own words and broadcast for the world to hear.
“Crown Heights” premiered in U.S. Competition at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.