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The first thing you notice about actor Lakeith Stanfield are his sad eyes. Brimming with pain, they seem to be constantly on the verge of springing forth a river of tears. In previous films like Short Term 12 and Get Out, his eyes were used sparingly but to great effect, allowing the filmmakers to hint at elemental traumas without resorting to exposition or grand gestures.
Those eyes are even better suited to Crown Heights, an understated and uplifting drama based on the true story of a man wrongfully convicted of murder and imprisoned for two decades. Stanfield plays Colin Warner, a West Indian immigrant living a compromised life in Brooklyn in the early 1980s. Colin’s home life is unsustainable, with his irresponsible, promiscuous mother in the next room. During the day, he is training to be a mechanic, but with little income, he steals cars on the side for extra cash. In an unrelated incident, Colin suddenly gets arrested for a murder he didn’t commit and serves two years before his case even goes to trial.
With subtle touches, Crown Heights deftly sketches a portrait of a system designed to fail those without money or influence. For reasons never explained, Colin is denied bail after his arrest. The case against him rests on a 15-year-old witness, just a scared kid who has been threatened with deportation to Haiti if he doesn’t cooperate. There are crooked cops, impotent judges, and misguided lawyers. Some of these elements are common to wrongful imprisonment stories, but Crown Heights zooms in closer, showing the failures of the justice system to be human in nature, instead of relying on vaguely-sketched notions of systemic corruption.
Crown Heights succeeds in depicting the humanity of players on every side of the law through a top-notch cast of actors. Stanfield is magnetic as Colin, but, in a risky structural decision, his character takes a backseat in the film’s second half, while his brother Carl (former NFL star Nnamdi Asomugha, who also produced) doggedly works the appeal system. Asomugha is understated but effective as Colin’s champion, and, as he contacts lawyers, neighbors, and potential witnesses in his unflagging efforts, we are treated to a murderer’s row of brilliant actors, from Colin’s childhood sweetheart (Marsha Stephanie Blake) who reconnects with him in prison, to the victim’s brother (Amari Cheatom), who reluctantly joins the cause to free Colin.
These brilliant, vulnerable performance help to smooth over the film’s predictable plot and often-unimaginative scripting. It’s understandable that Ruskin was beholden to the facts of the case, but sometimes Crown Heights plays like a straight procedural, with little comment or context—with one notable exception. Most films that take place over a period as long as Crown Heights does—over 20 years—struggle to depict time’s passage, but Ruskin brilliantly uses short clips of politicians like Reagan, Clinton, and former New York governor George Pataki bragging about the number of criminals they have put behind bars. In this clever stroke, the film brings political context to a story that already pulls at the heart strings, depicting a man who, against all odds, succeeded in making himself more than just a number.
Crown Heights opens Friday at AMC Rivertowne 12, AMC Magic Johnson Capital Center 12, and AMC Hoffman Center 22