Colin Warner’s life story isn’t black-and-white. Fortunately, neither is Crown Heights, a compelling biopic that chronicles his prolonged struggle to overcome injustice.
He spent more than two decades in a New York prison for a murder he didn’t commit. Yet while that narrative concept sounds familiar, the approach manages to mostly sidestep clichés — simultaneously scrutinizing the criminal justice system while saluting the resilience of its subject.
The incident took place in 1980, when a teenager was gunned down on the streets of Brooklyn. A child (Skylan Brooks) is pressured by investigators into identifying a witness, which mistakenly puts 18-year-old petty thief Colin (Lakeith Stanfield) on trial for murder. Despite flimsy evidence, a series of courtroom mishaps leads to a conviction and a life sentence.
Colin is adamant about his innocence, which prompts an obsessive quest by a lifelong friend (Nnamdi Asomugha) and a childhood sweetheart (Natalie Paul) to prove the truth. They encounter indifferent lawyers and legal loopholes that leave Colin stranded behind bars as frustration mounts.
Set during a time when politicians nationwide were cracking down on crime by lengthening prison sentences, it would be simple to pin Colin’s plight on racial or socioeconomic profiling. But as the evocative film illustrates, you could equally argue about a flawed system, shoddy detective work, police coercion, horrendous lawyers, circumstances within the titular working-class neighborhood, and his own immaturity.
Stanfield (Get Out) again proves himself to be a versatile rising star with his portrayal of a character whose emotions remain largely internalized, yet who generates sympathy despite a hotheaded temperament and the criminal record of a scoundrel.
The film juggles elements of a police procedural, a gritty prison drama, a legal thriller, a crime saga, a character study, and an expose of holes in the criminal justice system. That’s an ambitious combination, and the screenplay by director Matt Ruskin sometimes lacks cohesion and depth.
However, the true-life source material is all of those things, and the filmmaker keeps the pace brisk without compromising the complexity in the characters or shortchanging the intricacies of the story. It’s provocative without turning heavy-handed.
For the most part, Crown Heights recognizes that the value in telling Colin’s story is about more than a happy ending. And likewise, it realizes that the bigger picture dictates celebrating a positive outcome with only tempered optimism toward the future.