Please don’t let it be a cell.
It’s a horror story. Eighteen year-old black immigrant from Trinidad—not averse to such crimes as boosting cars for extra cash—is picked up on the street, handcuffed, and taken into custody for the murder of someone he’s never even heard of let alone seen to put a bullet in the back of his head. Months go by without bail, the actual killer is caught, and yet he remains incarcerated thanks to the state labeling him as “the driver” of a drive-by shooting created by the arresting officer and District Attorney to save face. The eyewitness is a minor, the murderer too. Everyone involved is a kid so scared about what might happen to him that they ignore the fate they’ve sealed for this stranger they’ve just met.
This was the impossible event made possible that began Colin Warner’s twenty-one year imprisonment. And through it all he never gave his accusers the satisfaction of betraying his innocence—even when faced with a parole board demanding he show remorse to be set free. His patience was tested to the point of violence, his drive towards completing his education becoming a means to maintain his humanity. How many notifications must you receive about appeals being denied before you resign yourself to a life within those four walls? How many times can you get your hopes up only to have them dashed because a bunch of kids let the cops strong-arm them into lying to save their own skin? In a system built to break him, Colin stood tall.
Writer/director Matt Ruskin has brought Warner’s story—as documented on an episode of “This American Life”—to the big screen with Crown Heights. It isn’t your usual behind bars drama, though. The focus doesn’t remain strictly with the accused to watch his survival under extreme duress. That sort of existential crisis is present, but Colin’s (Lakeith Stanfield) ability to stay alive is only half of his eventual release. The other comes in the form of his best friend Carl ‘KC’ King’s (Nnamdi Asomugha) tireless fight to bring him home. He’s the one who was on the street collecting donations for legal fees. He contacted the appeals lawyers and changed jobs from mechanic to legal processor to move closer to the court system all while starting his own family.
KC knew in his heart how easily it could have been him locked-up instead. Colin became a tangible example of a damaged system. If he could be carted off to maximum security because a frightened teenager pointed at his photo after being grilled for hours at the police station, why couldn’t you by next? This case was more than about a friend to KC. It spoke about the court’s limitations when it came to the poor. It showed how much weight was given to image as far as the authorities not wanting to admit mistakes when they could package two black kids together for the price of one. And even if Colin received parole, he could never reclaim the life taken from him unless his conviction was vacated.
Ruskin’s film is therefore less about the strength of keeping one’s head in jail and more about the insane uphill battle to prove the truth when nobody is listening. It’s about the perseverance of those who refuse to give up even when the man they’re fighting for has. There’s some luck involved too, but that shouldn’t be surprising considering it also had a hand in Colin being the one put away. The right lawyer had to be found. The guilt of those who never forgot what they did to an innocent man had to fester enough for them to change their tune. At a certain point age and perspective have to make you realize events are bigger than just their effect on you personally. Truth can save lives.
Crown Heights is a message movie beyond biography in this way. Ruskin bookmarks chapters with archival footage displaying new political promises for harsher consequences in the “War on Crime” that directly pertain to Colin’s plight. It’s as though each president regardless of party (Reagan, Bush, and Clinton are all heard) had a personal agenda against him because they ensure his battle grows harder by the year. But at disadvantages increase on one side, advantages complement them on the other. Colin’s corner is bolstered by an old flame (Natalie Paul‘s Antoinette), KC’s knowledge and resources build despite the strain this quest puts on his family, and the desire to listen to what a convicted murderer says rather than what’s said about him eventually manifests to counteract rising police corruption.
Unfortunately, however, Ruskin ultimately bites off more than he can chew. With so many moving parts, clarity can sometimes elude us. It could very well be that I missed something, but I firmly believed Colin and KC were brother-in-laws for a majority of the film. This is what happens when you open things up with the former talking to his mother in the morning before cutting without context to the latter being told by his soon-to-be-wife Briana (Marsha Stephanie Blake) to leave without her mother seeing him. Why wouldn’t I assume she and Colin were siblings under the same roof? Only when Briana begins to (rightfully) remind her husband that their children should be put first did I wonder if maybe she wasn’t a Warner after all.
This is what happens when you’re moving through so much information over so many years in such a truncated runtime. You have to make shortcuts and oftentimes exposition and depth become causalities. The police are painted as two-dimensional villains, drama becomes staccato bursts sticking out to be remembered later rather than pure escalation of events, and Antoinette’s entire life is pretty much erased so she can serve as incentive. (What’s the story with her daughter, military service, career, etc.?) Characters like Bill Camp‘s Robedee and Ras Enoch McCurdie‘s Hassan provide welcome additions, but their sudden importance to the plot can become distracting. The same goes with an early encounter with Gbenga Akinnagbe‘s Sampson. There’s always this sense of watching an abridged conflation of two worthwhile novels.
We’re shown Colin’s and KC’s parallel lives during these twenty years, but only enough to understand the basics of what they went through. Luckily for Ruskin he cast two phenomenal actors because Stanfield and Asomugha create their own propulsive cause and effect in emotion when actions prove insufficient. I wonder what an extra thirty minutes or so could do to fill in some blanks and give both the stage they deserve. Because even though they excel, the constant ping-ponging back and forth to make sure everything is included does subvert their success. It’s not enough to derail the message or the characters’ ability to earn empathy, just to stop the whole from being truly great. But if eyes and hearts are opened nonetheless, “good” works just fine.
courtesy of IFC Films