Crown Heights is based on an actual crime and genuinely appalling miscarriage of justice. Thankfully, it’s also a story of friendship that’s as uplifting as it is rightly upsetting.
When a teenager named Mario Hamilton was murdered outside a Brooklyn high school in 1980, the NYPD arrested an immigrant from Trinidad named Colin Warner (Lakeith Stanfield). A teenager identified him from a series of photographs, and Warner spent 21 years of his life in prison for the crime.
The case was open-and-shut but for Warner’s innocence.
In what now looks like a twist in logic that would frustrate Lewis Carroll, a jury convicted Warner despite the fact that the only eyewitness tying him to the crime changed his story every time he opened his mouth.
Oh, and the teen who really killed Hamilton not only declared publicly that he’d do it beforehand, but he confessed to police later. Because he never spoke up during the investigation or at the trial, Warner languished in prison while the perpetrator was later released early because he was a juvenile.
“…fought almost to the point of madness to get Warner out of prison.”
There isn’t much in the way of mystery or suspense Crown Heights, but that’s not a problem because writer-director Matt Ruskin (working from an episode of the radio series The American Life titled “DIY”) focuses on the relationship between Warner and his lifelong buddy Carl “KC” King (NFL veteran Nnamdi Asomugha), who fought almost to the point of madness to get Warner out of prison.
The production for Crown Heights looks like a TV-movie from the 70s, but Ruskin deserves credit for simply leaving Warner’s story alone. While others have gone to prison because they had inexperienced or incapable attorneys, Warner’s story is gripping because his defense counsel made short work of the prosecution’s charges.
In most circumstances, the jury would have promptly acquitted him, but a crime wave in the late 1970s made them so fearful that they couldn’t see that Warner had not business appearing in that courtroom.
In most legal dramas of this sort, attorney mistakes are often clumsily used to build tension when the material is weak. In this case and in the film, a good lawyer can’t get an exoneration. Furthermore, the system seems geared for perpetrators who act penitent but not people who have been convicted unjustly.
Warner and King have consultant credits on the film, but Ruskin isn’t interested in making saints of the two. He accurately depicts how Warner’s defiant and often belligerent behavior in the slammer prevented him from getting the release he deserved.
“Ruskin deserves credit for simply leaving Warner’s story alone…”
Furthermore, King’s single-minded efforts to get Warner released made a wreck of his finances and hurt his marriage. While his devotion to his boyhood friend is commendable, his family and his other obligations suffer. While Warner’s obvious innocence is an excellent reason to spend two decades trying to free him, the task seems beyond his limited time and resources. King’s ultimate success doesn’t feel preordained, so even if you’ve looked the case up on Google, it still feels great when his efforts pay off.
Because there’s no question that Warner has been wronged, Ruskin can afford to present King and Warner as flesh-and-blood, which makes their struggle consistently credible.
While the names of some of the peripheral characters have been changed (they were underage in 1980), Ruskin gets a lot of tiny details about the case right. The meager “office” apartment of attorney William Robedee (nicely played by Bill Camp, Love & Mercy) is not a figment Ruskin’s imagination but a nearly word-for-word recounting of how This American Life described his then fledgling practice.
Stanfield and Asomugha both nail their accents and convincingly age as the case wears on. The two also have enough chemistry to make King’s sacrifices seem convincing. It’s too bad that so few of us have friends as loyal as he is.
Crown Heights (2017) Directed by Matt Ruskin. Written by Matt Ruskin. Starring: Lakeith Stanfield, Nnamdi Asomugha, Adriane Lenox, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Skylan Brooks, Bill Camp, Sarah Goldberg.
7 out of 10