Among the 2.4 million incarcerated Americans, an estimated 120,000 of them are innocent but too poor to mount a suitable defense. Colin Warner, an immigrant from Trinidad, was one of them. His is a story that begs to be told. And that’s what writer-director Matt Ruskin does in his fact-based drama “Crown Heights,” a Sundance award-winner this past January.
In a very mechanical style, Ruskin (“Booster”) chronicles the fight to free Warner — tried and wrongfully convicted of murder in 1980. He served 20 years in maximum security. The film spans Warner’s life from his arrest at age 18 in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn to his release at nearly age 40 — thanks to the relentless efforts of his best friend (Nnamdi Asomugha).
The film feels like two different movies. The first half is a character study of Warner, stoically played by a terrific Lakeith Stanfield (“Get Out” and Snoop Dogg from “Straight Outta Compton”). We see his humanity stripped away behind bars. We see his fight for survival. We see his grasping at hope until that’s all but gone, too. It’s like HBO’s “The Night Of,” only much lighter. Ruskin’s characterization is about as cliched as any prison movie you’ll see, with brutal guards, strip searches, solitary confinement, beatings, etc. Warner’s inner feelings are revealed through flashbacks — playing soccer on the beaches of Trinidad or recalling his doting grandma. Ruskin’s camera lingers on Stanfield’s face in close-ups. The actor is terrific in conveying emotion.
About halfway through, Ruskin shifts focus to Asomugha’s Carl “KC” King and his devotion to clear his “brother’s” name. In so doing, King sacrifices his own life, money and marriage. This story becomes more procedural, but it’s engaging, with King doggedly hunting down witnesses and re-investigating the shooting. Asomugha, who in another life was an all-pro cornerback for the Oakland Raiders and Philadelphia Eagles, might seem an unlikely choice for the part, but he holds up the film when it comes to rest on his muscular shoulders. From behind big 1980s glasses and speaking in a melodic Trinidadian lilt, Asomugha — husband of actress Kerry Washington (“Scandal”) — is humble and vulnerable with determined eyes, not at all stiff. Bill Camp (“The Night Of”) plays a low-level lawyer who joins forces with King.
The film can be emotionally wrenching at times. At others, it feels like a television movie of the week, not following through after introducing provocative topics such as police using illegal techniques then covering them up with false testimony or the pervasive inequalities in the criminal justice system. Ditto for the unexplored issues Warner experiences with his mother (Adriane Lenox) and the touching relationship between Warner and Antoinette (Natalie Paul). Their relationship is affecting, but never fully fleshed out.
Ruskin eschews character development, context and depth in favor of brevity. Two decades is a lot of history and happenings to cover, forcing Ruskin to rush, jumping ahead years at a time. It results in a slippery slope that prevents Ruskin from nearing the pinnacle “Crown Heights” should have reached.
— Dana Barbuto may be reached at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @dbarbuto_Ledger.
Cast: Lakeith Stanfield, Nnamdi Asomugha, Natalie Paul, Bill Camp.
(R for language, nudity, violence).