“Please don’t let it be a cell,” Lakeith Stanfield whispers every morning as lights stream into his eyes and he begins to awaken in the prison drama “Crown Heights.” He’s hoping his bleak, unjust imprisonment is all a dream, but every day that he rises, he finds himself trapped in a waking nightmare. Based on the true story of Colin Warner and his wrongful incarceration that lasted 20 years, “Crown Heights,” by director Matt Ruskin, is an excoriating look at the judicial system, the prison-industrial complex and the war on crime perpetrated by three generations of Presidents (Reagan, Bush, Clinton) who were reacting to the so-called crime epidemic in the ’80s and early-’90s. But first and foremost, “Crown Heights” is a tragic look at an innocent man who lost half his life in a cell.
Lakeith Stanfield has had a curious career in that he’s stolen countless scenes and always stood out in movies like “Short Term 12,” “Straight Outta Compton,” “Miles Ahead,” “Selma” and more recently on FX’s “Atlanta,” but never actually had much of a lead role. This changes in “Crown Heights,” where he plays the wrongfully accused Warner. He shines by bringing a lot of quiet soul to the role, but the actor can only do so much to a part that feels half-sketched at best.
An 18-year-old Trinidadian kid in the crime-ridden Crown Heights neighborhood of 1980s Brooklyn, stealing TVs and carrying out petty street crimes, Warner was wrongly identified by a witness and ultimately sentenced to 15 years to life in prison for a murder he didn’t commit. Thanks to a government crackdown on violent crimes, Warner’s appeals would go unheard and he would spend a total of 20 years behind bars. The wrongfully convicted man was eventually freed in 2001, more than a decade after the real killer came forward.
But much of “Crown Heights” is surface, as we never connect much emotionally with the characters, because we rarely find out who they truly are outside of victims railroaded by a prejudiced system. Confusing the narrative is the story of Carl King (Nnamdi Asomugha), a lifelong friend who, despite having no formal legal education, devoted his life to prove Warner’s innocence.
Herein lies another central issue with “Crown Heights”: The movie suffers from a lack of focus. While ostensibly about Warner’s life in jail, the movie distractingly begins to spend as much time with King. Perhaps this is due to the lack of drama in jail, with Warner studying, teaching other prisoners and leading a somewhat uneventful existence, but it’s still to the detriment of the overall plot, which is too married to the beats of the real story. And strangely enough, the end of the film, with Warner’s exoneration, does little to redress the wrongdoings throughout. The elation of freedom is trumped by any final political remarks which were supposedly the thesis of the movie.
“Crown Heights” also has casting assets it disregards. The great, and sorely underused Gbenga Akinnagbe (“The Wire”) shows up as a fellow West Indian convict who takes Warner in, but he is quickly bounced out of the movie. Likewise, Stanfield’s “Atlanta” partner, the excellent Brian Tyree Henry, appears briefly in what is essentially a cameo role, but one wishes heavyweight actors of this caliber would have more to do.
Well-made and -shot by Ben Kutchins (“Happyish,” “Mozart In The Jungle“), “Crown Heights” often has an evocative and lyrical beauty to it — especially in its flashbacks — that offsets some of its punishing brutality. These poetic moments are perhaps the most rewarding elements of the film. And though Ruskin lands a strong supporting ensemble — Natalie Paul, Bill Camp, Nestor Carbonell and Amari Cheatom — it’s the bracing performance by Stanfield that’s the highlight. Fearful, angry, spiritually broken and sometimes feral like a caged animal, Stanfield dolefully expresses an emotional journey that unfolds over the course of two decades, capturing how Warner holds onto his humanity in the most horrifying of circumstances. But again, rarely do we see deeper into the character.
As a docudrama that is beholden to its true-story foundation, “Crown Heights” often gets bogged down in legal-drama frustrations and quagmires. There’s also some Sundance-y miserablist tendencies as well, as Warner’s situation becomes more and more hopeless. Somewhat abruptly cut into the movie, but still fascinating, is the way Ruskin mixes in found footage of the aforementioned U.S. leaders stressing the war on crime and the notions of keeping violent offenders off the streets (even if they’ve already paid their debt to society). In this regard, and with some of the film’s overarching themes, “Crown Heights” works as a kind of dramatic companion to Ava DuVernay’s incendiary “13th” and its examination of the horrors of mass incarceration and the unjust and racist American prison system. “Crown Heights” has good intentions and it might dramatize this abuse of power and the grave carriage of injustice of this story, but it’s never quite as trenchant.
“Crown Heights” works best when the political and the personal merge with the insidious nature of corruption and systemic cultural, societal and economic oppression. Warner is railroaded by the system and exploited at every turn, and Stanfield’s outrage and disbelief becomes ours. The manipulation he faces and the overwhelming prejudice against his case is maddening, and “Crown Heights” thus also works as a powerful censure of the American penal system.
However, buried somewhere in all this is Warner’s personal story. It’s there, as is a love-story subplot, but the movie often sacrifices its own lead character in the name of doing honor to the true story. As anchored by Stanfield’s strong performance of one man’s tragic life behind bars, trying to cling to hope, humanity finds its way out beyond the darkness of a cell, even though we don’t really know the prisoner inside. [C+]