A man is falsely imprisoned and spends 20 years fighting for his innocence in this steely true story
In “Crown Heights,” Lakeith Stanfield (“Get Out,” TV’s “Atlanta”) plays Colin Warner, a man falsely convicted of murder who spends more than 20 years behind bars fighting to prove his innocence. It’s the kind of movie that could easily lend itself to over-the-top dramatics. But in the hands of writer-director Matt Ruskin, “Crown Heights” plows forward, steely in its resolve, and forgoes the emotional fireworks in favor of subdued, straightforward storytelling.
Warner is an 18-year-old in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, when the story picks up in 1980. He’s no angel — we catch up with him as he’s stealing a car — but he’s not a killer. Still, when a man is gunned down in his neighborhood, he’s rounded up by police and pinned as the murderer, after he’s identified by a witness.
“Crown Heights” — which is based on a true story — shows the massive difficulties of navigating a legal system that is stacked against young black men at every turn. Warner pleads his innocence to no avail. He’s unable to get competent legal representation because he can’t afford it. It’s up to his friend, Carl King (Nnamdi Asomugha) to fight for Warner from the outside, but he has his own set of hurdles and challenges to traverse. It’s a long journey to freedom.
“Crown Heights” is an undeniably powerful story, and while Ruskin never cheapens his subject, he skimps in places — a two-year stint in solitary confinement that passes by in the blink of an eye, for example — that would help the story land more of a gut punch. The director shows admirable restraint, but this is one instance where a little bit of shouting is not only warranted, it’s justified.
Rated R: for language, some sexuality/nudity and violence
Running time: 99 minutes