Rated R: 99 minutes
Two stars out of four
Matt Ruskin's "Crown Heights" takes its name from the Brooklyn neighborhood, but its story is both more pointedly individual and more broadly national than that suggests.
It's a sober recounting of a case of wrongful conviction. Colin Warner (Lakeith Stanfield) is a Trinidad-born 18-year-old from Crown Heights, a traditional bastion of Caribbean immigrants. He's arrested in April 1980 for a murder in neighboring Flatbush. Warner isn't a saint - he's shown stealing a car earlier in the day - but he had nothing to do with the crime, and doesn't even know the people involved.
Warner's jail term stretches more than two decades. The years, as marked in "Crown Heights," peel away like boxing round cards in a bludgeoning fight that just won't end. The tale of Warner's misfortune dovetails throughout with the obsessed efforts of a childhood friend, Carl King (Nnamdi Asomugha, the former star NFL cornerback) to free him. More than one life is wrecked by injustice.
Writer-director Ruskin, in his second feature film, stays with each as the years pile on with one notable exception. Every now and then up pops a president - Reagan, Bush, Clinton - on television pledging to be tough on crime. New York governor George Pataki also gets in on the act - long a popular one for politicians looking for a boost in the polls. Warner, it's suggested, is one more innocent ensnarled by "law and order" politics, which despite recent bipartisan movements toward prison reform, is still very much in vogue.
"Crown Heights" comes out of a popular "This American Life" episode and it's easy to applaud its noble effort to spotlight a gross injustice. Many did at the Sundance Film Festival in January, where "Crown Heights" won the audience award.
Yet the film, full of good intentions and compelling performers, fails to find a dramatic structure for its considerable timespan. Working against "Crown Heights" is that tales of wrongful conviction are dishearteningly familiar, and Ruskin struggles to carve out new terrain. We get, as you'd expect, tussles with guards, failed legal appeals and frustrated parole hearings.
But in staying close to the case, "Crown Heights" misses the opportunity to delve deeper into its characters. Warner, for example, remarkably finds love 12 years into his imprisonment with an old friend, Catherine, and they marry. But their relationship here consists of little more than a glance at the conjugal visit bed.
"Crown Heights" doesn't crackle with outrage, as you might expect. Instead, it takes its patient, plodding mood from the laconic Warner who, outside of occasional outbursts, greets this horror with uncommon poise and not very much surprise. Outside of the president cameos, he lets the story simply unfold, letting our anger grow with time.
Many will know Stanfield as one of the Donald Glover's pals from the absurdist TV series "Atlanta." (His equally great co-star Brian Tyree Henry also briefly turns up in "Crown Heights.") But Stanfield's range has quickly become apparent. He's lately been ubiquitous as a key part of the ensembles of "Short Term 12" and "Selma," as the pivotal character who utters the title phrase in "Get Out" and even as the Chandler in Jay-Z's "Friends"-style music video.
In his first leading performance, Stanfield proves he's ready for more, investing Warner with warmth and humanity. But the hesitant, unimaginative script lets him down; Stanfield's leading-man breakout will have to wait for another day.