By Mark Saldana
Rating: 3 (Out of 4 Stars)
For many years, the number of incarcerated Black Americans has outnumbered that of white people and other ethnic groups. In more recent times, many wrongful imprisonments have been uncovered; however, these cases often get revealed after these prisoners have already served years, even decades. Several films about the subject of wrongful convictions have been made, but with these movies, the statistics seem to be reversed. The number of white protagonists/subjects actually outnumber that of the black ones. One of the great things about cinema is the potential to share these important stories and help the masses become aware of a rather disturbing problem of inequality. A new film titled Crown Heights tells one such important true story of a Black American sent to prison for a crime he did not commit and does so with outstanding performances by its talented cast.
In 1980, Trinidadian immigrant Collin Warner (Lakeith Stanfield) gets arrested and charged for a murder he did not commit. After a police investigation marred by racism and ineptitude, and a trial that goes terribly wrong, Warner gets convicted and forced to serve at least ten years in prison before he can qualify for parole. Despite his conviction, Warner and his best friend Carl King (Nnamdi Asomugha) make all kinds of attempts to appeal the conviction, only to watch them fail. As several years pass and Collin’s spirit gets crushed by his experiences in prison, his determination atrophies. However, his buddy Carl remains undaunted and is willing to sacrifice his life to clear his friend’s name.
Written and directed by Matt Ruskin, Crown Heights offers a disturbing and compelling true story that needs to reach masses. Sure, people have already seen stories like this and have seen movies of both fictional and non-fictional varieties, but people need to be reminded that racial disparities in prisons exist for multiple reasons. One of these reasons has to do with racial discrimination and profiling, problems which often send the innocent to prison. Ruskin’s film does lose points for not telling this disturbing story in a truly powerful way. His presentation sometimes comes across as flat and often gets too caught up in the procedural aspects of the criminal justice system. At the same time, I do appreciate that Ruskin doesn’t dive headfirst into melodrama or contrived drama and tension. When it comes to telling this kind of story, filmmakers have to find the right balance between genuine drama and theatrics. Ruskin plays it a little too safely though.
On the more positive end of the spectrum, I was quite impressed with the performances of the cast who keep the film grounded firmly in reality and managed to keep me even more invested in the story. Both Lakeith Stanfield and Nnamdi Asomugha give tremendous performances as Collin and Carl. They both exceptionally deliver genuine feelings of frustration, anger, sadness and sometimes defeat. Lakeith Stanfield definitely has a magnetic screen presence and amiable charm, but also gets to show a darker side when his character gets pushed too far. The movie also features great work by Adriane Lenox, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Luke Forbes, and an especially poignant and beautiful turn by Natalie Paul who stars as Collin’s love Antoinette.
And though I have some criticism regarding some of the storytelling in the film, I still feel that it is a solid effort by Matt Ruskin and a story of great importance that needs to be out there. It is for this reason, and because of the exceptional work by the cast, that I highly recommend this film. The problem of racial disparity won’t ever improve if it continues to get ignored. It is a problem that has gone on way too long and made too many people suffer as a result.