By: Paris Wong
“Please don’t let it be a cell.”
These seven words will haunt you as ‘Crown Heights’ director Matt Ruskin leads you through a gut-wrenching account of the true story of Colin Warner (Lakeith Stanfield), a black man in New York who was wrongfully convicted and forced to serve 20 years in prison for a murder he did not commit.
Not only does it follow Warner, but the film also focuses on his friend, Carl ‘KC’ King (Nnamdi Asomugha), who devoted his life to freeing Warner — even at the expense of his own life. One of the film’s most visceral moments happens when Warner confronts King about his extensive efforts to expedite his release. “It’s not just about you… it could be anyone, it could be me,” King tells Warner during a visit to the prison, a painful truth that still resonates with many today — especially in light of the police brutality and racial profiling that is often reported on in the news.
While King offers a slightly lighter, more hopeful side to the story, it never takes away from the injustice Warner faced at the hands of those meant to serve and protect us. That remains as infuriating as ever — as it should. Simple, beautiful and effective shots are interspersed with old footage of various officials throughout the 1980s and later, making speeches and driving home the importance of tracking down the culprit, immediately convicting them and putting them away.
And in Warner’s case, it was a dangerous mindset that innocent people suffered for as well.
Powerful and poignant, ‘Crown Heights’ is perfectly paced with a score that plays easily to emotions and will, in turn, absolutely wreck you (you’ve been warned, keep a box of tissues close by).
The interrogation scenes pass abruptly, as a means of showing how little a chance Warner and the others stood against the police once they’d already decided his guilt. There are tender moments between family and friends, but they only ever last as long as the prison guards allow them to. While the time seems to flit past relatively quickly — from six months, to two years, to six, then fifteen — it only makes it all the more apparent how harrowing Warner’s sentencing was.
True, this hour-and-a-half film seems a blink of an eye, possibly even a cop-out to some, compared to the impossible time he served — but it just goes to show how no length of movie can hold a candle to his experience of pain and injustice, to having his freedom wrongfully stripped away for so long. You can never truly know, no matter how long the shot lingers or doesn’t.
Several moments throughout the film stood out to me: the shot begins tilting when the judge sentences Warner, as if reflecting how off balance his life has become; Warner’s friends and colleagues at the garage he worked at are shown smiling with certificates in their hands in another scene — while he sits in a cell in stark contrast, life passing him by; and King tracking down another witness, who simply breaks down into tears when he learns Warner is still in prison because of his own actions during the investigation years ago.
It’s reminiscent of Ken Burns’ documentary about the Central Park Five, especially with the tone of my personal favorite scene — in which Leon Grant (Amari Cheatom), the brother of the murder victim, lays out his secondhand account of his friend Clarence Lewis’ (Skylan Brooks) fateful interrogation that would implicate Warner — but while some names have been changed around, ‘Crown Heights’ is based off of its own true story.
It’s an unimaginable, unfathomable one — but moreover, it’s real, and it’s still happening in our society today. For those that understand and live this reality everyday, this movie is honestly a hard watch. It’s gutting. It stays with you. That said, it’s necessary. It honors the strength Warner maintained throughout those years that were stolen from him, but it never downplays his struggle nor that of those around him — a credit to the cast and crew’s collective talents.
If your eyes aren’t open, if this doesn’t move and enrage you, if this doesn’t urge you to demand change… what will?
‘Crown Heights’ is…
★ ★ ★ ★ ★