Crown Heights is the kind of true story that you must steel yourself to watch. It’s a film that should be required viewing, but that many will skip because watching something so emotive and tragic is a bit like the cinematic equivalent of eating your vegetables … raw.
Crown Heights chronicles the incredible true story of Colin Warner (Lakeith Stanfield), a man wrongly convicted of murder, his best friend, Carl King (former footballer Nnamdi Asomugha),and their decades long struggle for justice. That’s ambitious subject matter for a first feature, but Matt Ruskin does his subject proud.
We meet Colin, an 18-year-old immigrant from Trinidad, in 1980 on what should be just another day in Crown Heights. He’s training to be a mechanic, causing some criminal mayhem (car theft, not murder), trying to get the girl. Next thing, he’s arrested, but not for the crime he believes. Instead of the incident with the car, the police run him in for the murder of another youth. Their case is built on eyewitness testimony that Colin stepped out of a car and shot the other boy in the neck. And right away, everything feels wrong. But, sitting trail with a another man (the one who would eventually admit full responsibility for the murder), Colin can’t catch any relief. He’s given 15 years to life and locked away. Then the work begins.
While he’s imprisoned we watch slip by in seconds. And if our anxiety and dread can be so heightened in a scant 94 minutes, what must Colin’s every waking moment have been like for the 20-plus years he spent utterly powerless to correct his situation. Stanfield walks the high wire of emotions that Colin’s story demands with seeming ease. Meanwhile, Asomugha turns in a splendid performance that more than holds its own in a strong ensemble. Asomugha’s scenes show us the less obvious struggles in a story of this magnitude, and it forms an interesting parallel to see how his life evolves alongside Colin’s. This is a story about a struggle for justice, but it’s also a testament to the deep and unbreakable bonds of friendship.
In short, Crown Heights is wonderfully acted and quietly devastating — you won’t regret watching it.