It’s been less than a week since the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia reignited a discussion about race, white supremacy, unchecked violence, and policing in the age of Donald Trump. News reports and statements from the White House have further aggravated mediation efforts and stifled the voices of the disenfranchised. As a result, we’re living in a perpetual state of fear, anger, and invalidation in the same era of Black Lives Matter and Black Girl Magic. It’s unjustifiable yet not unfamiliar to what it means to be black in America, what it means to be unapologetically black when blackness is often synonymous with being a criminal. It’s hard to put these emotions aside as the gut-wrenching Crown Heights opens in theaters this weekend highlighting the real-life story of a young black man who spends 21 years in jail for a murder he didn’t commit.
The movie opens in 1980 in the Brooklyn, New York neighborhood of Crown Heights when 18-year-old Trinidadian-American Colin Warner (Lakeith Stanfield) was making his way home with his mother’s newly repaired television set when police stopped him in his tracks and shoved him into their car with barely a confirmation of his name. While at the station, Colin is questioned by white male officers who had already made up their minds that they would finger him for the murder of 16-year-old Mario Hamilton after coercing a fake confession from 14-year-old Thomas Charlemagne (Skylan Brooks), a friend of Hamilton. Despite Colin’s multiple efforts to proclaim his innocence, and insistence that he had no knowledge of the murder which happened earlier that day, Colin was sentenced to 15 years to life in jail. His story was silenced, his life was halted, and instantly he became just another number in a prison system crowded with men who look like him. With the help of his childhood friend Carl King (Nnamdi Asomugha), he mounts his own case for freedom.
Wrongful incarceration is sadly not a new narrative in Black America. Numerous documentaries, books, and think pieces have chronicled this nation’s terrible relationship with blackness and criminalization. But Crown Heights isn’t about the state of affairs or the issues that have historically impacted the way we are viewed and how we view ourselves. This is a singular story, about one man. Not an example, not a headline, but one human whose narrative is treated as intimately as it deserves. Writer/director Matt Ruskin introduces Colin to the audience the same way his closest friends and loved ones knew him: ambitious, happy, loving, fun, and with a promising life ahead of him. This is contrary to the way law enforcement saw him; as a criminal, an opportunity to close a case they never really cared about in the first place. Ruskin traces Colin’s more than two-decade battle behind bars with sensitivity, awareness, and empathy.
Through Stanfield’s career-making performance, we see Colin go from a terrified teen to a hopeful jail mate to a dejected father—within a modest 90-minute runtime. We see the light go out in his eyes and his voice deepen as he evolves through manhood.
But it is Carl, through Asomugha’s passionate portrayal, who sacrifices everything for his friend’s eventual exoneration. Through this relationship we see the power of black male friendships, the strength it takes to wake up every morning and fight a system from the inside out that has cast you aside because of the color of your skin. It’s Carl’s compassion that compels him to say about his determination to help free Colin: “This isn’t about you. This could be me in here.”
It’s also Colin’s relationship with Antoinette (a touching performance by Natalie Paul), his first love who reenters his life just when he needs her most, that further humanizes his narrative. Their romance, challenged by the confines of a broken judicial system, both invigorates and shatters Colin as he struggles to embrace his manhood when it’s also being stripped away from him.
A story that is as heartbreaking as it is inspiring, Crown Heights is an especially poignant film in today’s times that succeeds in illuminating a perspective that is often overlooked. Its soulful performances and thoughtful depiction are not only awards-worthy but also urgent.