CROWN HEIGHTS, docudrama, rated R, Center for Contemporary Arts, 3 chiles
With a prison population of more than two million, the U.S. is the undisputed leader of the world when it comes to countries that lock up its own citizens. The closest runner-up is China, which has more than four times as many people and about half a million fewer prisoners. Crown Heights presents the real-life case of one American prisoner: Colin Warner, who spent 21 years behind bars, convicted of a murder that he didn’t commit.
Lakeith Stanfield plays Warner in writer-director Matt Ruskin’s adaptation of this true story. In the opening scenes, he is a soft-spoken teenager who works as a mechanic with other members of his Brooklyn community who, like him, are from the West Indies. He pals around with his good friend Carl King (former Philadelphia Eagles running back Nnamdi Asomugha) and shyly asks his neighbor Antoinette (Natalie Paul) for a date. Then one day the police pick him up and ask him why he shot a young man he has never met before. He protests, but they claim to have eyewitness accounts of his involvement. He is placed in jail pending his trial, and after that, sent to prison.
The first half of the film is particularly powerful, focusing on the minute details of Warner’s world before and after his arrest. The camera dwells momentarily on the sweeping second hand of a clock in the police station. Warner dreams of his childhood, and we see him splashing through the surf, dribbling a soccer ball. As he drifts back into consciousness and the outlines of his environment take shape, he whispers to himself, “Please don’t let it be a cell.” But it is.
It may seem like unfair criticism to mention that the stretches devoted to Warner’s life in prison get a little monotonous. The cast does warm and passionate work, but the poetry and weight of the early segments give way to the frustrating grind of Warner’s slow progress through the appeals system. Thanks largely to the persistence of friends and family advocating on his behalf, he was freed in 2001.
Interspersed throughout the movie are clips from various politicians who are touting their tough stances on crime. Mayor Ed Koch vows to put more cops on New York City streets, Bill Clinton announces his “three strikes” policy, and New York governor George Pataki proudly backs the return of the death penalty. If Attorney General Jeff Sessions succeeds in his efforts to bring back mandatory minimum sentences and to fill prisons with nonviolent drug offenders, we can expect more innocent people — especially young people of color — to be swept up in the process. — Jeff Acker
Drama in real life: Colin Warner and actor Lakeith Stanfield