Lakeith Stanfield first burst onto the scene for many with a breakout role in the indie Short Term 12. Since that time he’s delivered memorable and impressive supporting turns in Selma, Straight Outta Compton, and most recently FX’s tremendous series Atlanta. But with the true-story drama Crown Heights, Stanfield gets the chance to shine in a leading role, and shine he does. Unfortunately, the film itself—which is based on the true story of a man who was wrongfully imprisoned for over two decades—sticks mainly to the facts, failing to really take advantage of any larger insights or thematic throughlines.
Crown Heights is based on the true story of Colin Warner, which was previously told on the This American Life podcast. In April 1980, 18-year-old Warner was arrested for the murder of a stranger that he didn’t commit, as NYPD detectives—under pressure to close cases—have decided they have the right man and ensure that Warner’s bail is set at an unreasonably high level. When they finally catch the man who did commit the murder, they finger Warner as his accomplice and successfully lobby to have the two men tried together—their fates in the same balance.
Both are found guilty, and Warner finds himself whisked away to a maximum security prison for a crime he did not commit. There he sits for year after year, while his friends and family continue to work towards finding some grounds for appeal. But as the appeals keep failing, Warner begins to lose hope—and himself—in a prison system that is unfailingly harsh.
Writer/director Matt Ruskin, who previously helmed the documentary The Hip Hope Project, does a swell job of telling the story as it happened. It’s competently shot and the narrative is compellingly stitched together. But as the film wears on, it begins to focus less on Warner and more on those trying to get him out of prison, and as it reaches its endpoint it’s done a fine job of hitting the major signposts of Warner’s incredible (and all-too-common) story, but has failed to hit upon an larger points or themes in any significant way.
There’s a throwaway line about how, if New York had the death penalty Warner would already be dead, which is a true and harrowing point, but one that’s merely addressed and not examined. That could’ve offered a strong point of view for the film, or even a deep chronicle of how prison fails to defeat Warner as a man. Or the rampant police incompetence during the Reagan administration. Or the unjustly harsh sentences imposed by the Clinton administration. But these points are all either just addressed briefly or glossed over altogether, leaving us just with Warner’s story. Which, again, is fascinating, but since the This American Life story exists, Crown Heights only offers one compelling reason to watch the movie instead: Lakeith Stanfield.
Stanfield is excellent in the lead role here, bringing a sorrow and pain to Warner during his first few years in prison, and later a resilience with shades of frustration. Stanfield has more than proven his talent over the past few years, and while some ADR issues do distract from his performance a bit (he’s doing a Haitian accent), it’s ultimately a moving and fascinating turn.
It’s just a shame the film itself doesn’t have more to say, given how rich with thematic resonance this material is. Colin Warner’s story is undoubtedly incredible, and one worth telling, but the film seems more interested in the mechanics of the case rather than making any larger points. As a story, it’s interesting enough, but as a piece of filmmaking, it falls short.
Crown Heights does not currently have a release date.