Opening this weekend is Crown Heights, a new film from writer/director Matt Ruskin. It is based on a true story that is both horrifying and all too timely. It also illustrates the best and worst of what humanity can be.
A teenager was gunned down in Brooklyn, New York in 1980, and the police arrested eighteen year old Crown Heights resident Colin Warner for the murder. On the basis of the testimony of a child witness and little else, Warner was convicted and went to prison. There he stayed for more than twenty years, while his childhood friend Carl King fought for his release. King knew his friend was innocent, and trapped by politics and a penal system that was unwilling to release or parole him, unless Warner admitted wrongdoing. King worked from the onset of Warner’s incarceration. He discovered that the detectives had closed the case, and the jury convicted Warner alongside the actual killer, despite having no physical evidence no credible eyewitnesses to Warner’s role in the crime. Ultimately King, with the assistance of an attorney, investigated the crime once again, to find the proof that would set Warner free.
Keith Stanfield, the breakout star of Get Out and Selma, stars as Warner, while Nnamdi Asomugha, former NFL star and philanthropist turned actor, stars as Carl King. Both actors are very believable and move this alternatively frustrating and inspiring story forward. Stanfield was drawn to the film though his reading of Bryan Stevenson’s award-winning book about the prison system and social justice, Just Mercy. There is a scene of Warner’s parole hearing fifteen years into his life sentence, taken directly from transcripts, that is particularly difficult to watch. It speaks to what prison can do to a person’s soul, especially when the inmate suffering the sentence is legitimately innocent.
Crown Heights won the Audience Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, an award that significantly increased its profile. Unfortunately it is not surprising that someone wrongfully convicted would spend so much time in prison. Writer/director Ruskin takes care to show the events as they unfolded, and did copious amounts of research on the true story. Perhaps this film will make more people aware of the tens of thousands of innocent people in prison, and how race plays a part in that. Last year’s documentary 13th, by filmmaker Ava DuVernay, would make for a smart double feature for those interested in learning the reasons how the criminal justice system could allow a prisoner to remain incarcerated, even after the actual murderer admitted he acted alone.
It is unlikely people who are part of the problem in any significant way, or who resent the Black Lives Matter movement will make an effort to see the film. For those already enraged by what’s going on in this country, Crown Heights might offer a call to positive action. The end credits show footage of the real Colin Warner after his release, speaking about staying positive, and stating that he chooses to forgive and move forward. It’s that kind of perspective that reminds us all we have a lot more non-violent, dedicated work to do, and the time is now.
I was fortunate to recently interview Nnamdi Asomugha, as well as the man he plays in the movie, Carl King, and It was fascinating to speak to both men together. I could see the difference in Asomugha as a person, and how he captured King’s mannerisms and vocal inflections in his portrayal. When I asked Asomugha whether it was harder or easier to interact with the subject he was portraying, he said he found only honor in the opportunity to portray someone so dedicated and heroic as King. Asomugha said that he was drawn to playing King because he himself had been arrested several times as a teenager, once quite clearly for simply doing is commonly referred to as “driving while black.” Asomugha also said he found his way into some scenes in an unusual way. Because he and Stanfield had little time to meet and get to know each other, he incorporated that emotional distance into the scenes at the prison with his co-star. He is also a producer of Crown Heights, and is responsible for the film actually being filmed in that neighborhood in New York, where King still lives and works for justice. They both hope to inspire those who see the film to seek change in our justice system, as they reaffirm there are too many innocent victims in prison. King still works for the wrongfully convicted, and in fact will soon have a website dedicated to his current projects and clients. Outside of his acting, Asomugha has the Asomugha Foundation, so both men are very much dedicated to doing good works.
Crown Heights is a fairly straightforward biography of two men’s struggles, although one of its best elements is how it offers a glimpse into what true, dedicated friendship means. It also shows how little has changed in the last 30 years in this country, but anyone paying attention to current news already knows that. Maybe those who watch movies like this one will find a way to make positive change, which is reason enough to see Crown Heights.
3 1/2 out of 5 stars