Crown Heights

crown-heights-rev Crown Heights  (2017)    Amazon Studios/Drama    RT: 94 minutes    Rated R (language, some sexuality and nudity, violence)    Director: Matt Ruskin    Screenplay: Matt Ruskin    Music: Mark De Gli Antoni    Cinematography: Ben Kutchins    Release date: September 1, 2017 (Philadelphia, PA)    Cast: Lakeith Stanfield, Nnamdi Asomugha, Natalie Paul, Amari Cheatom, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Nestor Carbonell, Zach Grenier, Josh Pais, Bill Camp, Adriane Lenox.

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 I wasn’t sure if I wanted to see another movie about a martyr to the system, an innocent person wrongfully jailed for a crime he had nothing to do with. These movies tend to get to me. The best of them- e.g. The Hurricane, In the Name of the Father and the documentary The Thin Blue Line- make me angry. There is something seriously wrong with a system that allows innocent people to be convicted and sent away for crimes they didn’t commit. Movies like Crown Heights are a constant reminder of this fact. It portrays a legal system more interesting in clearing cases than serving justice. It doesn’t matter to the cops and prosecutors that they have the wrong person; they just want a warm body to put in front of a judge. The rest can be faked.

crown heights Directed by Matt Ruskin (The Hip Hop Project), Crown Heights tells the true story of Colin Warner (Stanfield, Get Out), a Trinidadian man who spent more than 20 years behind bars for a murder he had nothing to do with. The police snatch him up while he’s walking home from work and take him to the precinct where they grill him about the killing of man he doesn’t even know. Despite his proclamations of innocence, they charge him with the murder and toss him in jail. Due to the lack of physical evidence, the state of New York’s case against him relies strongly on statements the police coerced from so-called witnesses. When they catch the real killer, they simply try the two men together claiming that Colin was the driver. In the end, he’s found guilty and sentenced to 15 years to life.

 While Colin deals with prison life, his best friend Carl (former Oakland Raider Asomugha) tries to prove his innocence. At first, he raises money to hire a good lawyer to handle his appeal. When that fails, he takes on a more active role; reinvestigating the case and tracking down witnesses with the hope that they’ll do the right thing and tell the truth. He also manages to secure the help of an honest lawyer (Camp, The Night Of) who’s equally outraged by what happened to Colin. Also helping is Antoinette (Paul, TV’s The Deuce), a girl Colin was sweet on before he went away. The two fall in love and get married while he’s inside. This is one lady that stands by her man; she’s determined to get him out of prison and bring him home to begin their life together.

 While I wouldn’t put Crown Heights in the same class as The Hurricane or In the Name of the Father, it is a riveting piece of work. It’s consistently compelling, well-acted and shot in a realistic no-frills kind of way. The scenes inside the prison are sufficiently grim and gritty. It’s predominantly black, blue and gray color palette is ideal even though it’s not eye-popping. As Colin, Stanfield struggles with the Trinidadian accent but otherwise nails the role. His character radiates decency and humanity even as his outer shell hardens from years of being trapped behind bars with assorted creeps (inmates AND guards). Asomugha is even better as Carl, the loyal friend who doggedly works on clearing his friend’s name even though it might cost him his family. This section of the story, which plays a lot like the excellent Spotlight, is the more gripping of the two. It’s interesting to watch him track down the involved parties after 20 years and ask them to relive an experience any rational person would rather forget.

 I really like how Ruskin includes news clips of political milestones- e.g. the passing of the Three Strikes Law- to mark the passing of time. It provides context as well as potential hurdles for Colin to get past on the long road to freedom. My only real complaint about Crown Heights is that it handles prison themes like homosexuality, gang violence and inmate abuse by guards in too perfunctory a manner. Ruskin, who also wrote the screenplay, doesn’t flesh out relevant characters like the female guard who shows Colin kindness. Crown Heights may not be as powerful as other films of its ilk but it is moving in the right spots. It’s a solid drama about injustice, racism and institutional indifference. At the very least, it’ll make you think about how our broken legal system can be fixed. Titles at the end inform us that there are approximately 120,000 innocent people in prison. If this is true, it’s good we have films like Crown Heights to shine a light on such grievous injustice.

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