There are many reasons to go see Crown Heights, but here’s a big one: it feels especially rewarding to experience such an emotionally resonant and dignified series of immigrant portraits.
I’m not the type of person who necessarily gravitates to films based on true stories. Maybe part of it is my adherence to the notion that fiction tells more truths than non-fiction. Maybe it’s my frantic post-theater googling to figure out all the needless ways the filmmakers tore the truth to shreds, shoehorned in romance subplots, invented characters, or inserted heroic episodes to serve a more satisfying trailer. Crown Heights eschews these desires, couching its creative flourishes in the reality of what occurred, and viewers will be hard-pressed to find much that was blown out of proportion.
Colin Warner (Lakeith Stanfield) had only lived in Crown Heights, Brooklyn for a little over two years before being arrested for a murder he did not commit. A teenage juvenile offender—an early moment in the film portrays him stealing a car while bringing his mother’s television home from the repair shop, an interesting dichotomy in and of itself—suffers some lazy-to-malicious police work and gets mistakenly arrested. Two cops are convinced (read as: committed to their own fiction) that he killed a young man he didn’t know in Flatbush, and he is immediately pummelled through the prison system, spending over two years at Rikers while awaiting a court date infected with concocted lies, pressured testimonies, and a feeble legal defense.
I was a little anxious about the prospect of seeing a movie that is, in many ways, focused so much on the theme of waiting, but Ruskin employs a variety of inspired methods to communicate the passage of time, exploring Warner’s exile from multiple angles. On-screen text counts years of his prolonged purgatory, accompanying stock footage of each new US president, of politicians rambling soundbites about the prison and justice, of NYC’s culture evolving. His friend Carl King (Nnamdi Asomugha) speaks to him routinely on a prison payphone, informing him of each potential case development and fighting to keep Warner in the world, so-to-speak, and we also notice that his phone technology modernizes: curly-cables, wireless, eventually cell phones. While these political and technological aspects evolve, Warner undergoes the incomprehensible torture of waiting out the truth.
At some point he makes this powerful statement: “Many of these prisoners know deep down that they put themselves in here. I don’t have that comfort.” Unable to even rely on the power of regret from which growth might spur, Warner is adrift in his meaningless punishment. He lashes out at guards and fellow prisoners, he psychologically lashes out against himself. He’s quite literally a man living out of time, and his reserves of patience and hope reach and breach each discovered limit.
Lakeith Stanfield in the lead role is tremendous, channeling a multitude of emotions and moods. I’ve often marveled at the remarkable way that the actor conveys a simmering intensity, while also always coming off as convivial and casual—this duality so effectively informs his portrayal of stoner/enlightened-philosopher/rapper-hanger-on Darius in FX’s Atlanta. In Crown Heights he’s able to express shades of anger in a heretofore rarely seen capacity; a stormy, befuddled rage that tussles with his own essential kindness, relenting to it as he does his best to process his daily reality.
The camerwork usually zeroes in on its subject’s eyes, and likes to present them head-on; in a memorable scene, Natalie Paul undoes her headwrap while staring intently straight ahead into the camera, at the focus of her love, an intensely intimate and disarming introduction to the scene which follows. You find Nnamdi Asomugha in most scenes with eyes blazing behind enlarged glasses, mind on overload as he expends his energies on any possibilities for his friend’s freedom.
Interestingly, so much of the story discards the more obvious tropes to be found in conventional melodramas. There’s no courtroom cheer scene at the end. At some point, Colin does away with his ample dreadlocks, but this is done off-camera and never so much as mentioned in the script. He meets some fellow West Indian inmates and is slowly drawn into their group—I expected the film to shift into something of a “tough prison” film at this point—but he soon distances himself when he realizes that aligning with them might cause violence to be an unavoidable part of his routine.
One reason why the character (as well as the man himself) Colin Warner is so compelling is the fact that he never exchanged his humanity or truth, despite the monolithic cruelty of his confinement, or the desperate potential for early release this exchange might have granted him. As an 18-year-old he was made an example of by a broken system, so ruthlessly discarded that his continued sentence often comes as a shock to the people in his old neighborhood; King smartly leverages this reaction as he works on Warner’s case.
Director Matt Ruskin has previously related The Diving Bell and the Butterfly as a key inspiration, but I would invite Julian Schnabel’s combined biopic work on the whole (Basquiat, Before Night Falls, etc.) as a good touchstone for Crown Heights. That being said, Ruskin’s film is more focused on the truth of what happened than Schnabel usually is; scenes like the one taking place before the probationary board were (incredibly) based on actual transcripts, whereas Shnabel employs a more magically creative approach to the facts (although, to be fair, the subjects of his films are always creatives).
While Colin did make it out, I’m purposefully avoiding mention of some of the more rewarding and unexpected moments that occur along the way, especially near the end. These scenes would be far less effective, if not complete misfires, in a movie that didn’t shamelessly wear its heart on its sleeve. While my feelings exiting the theater were meditative and tranquil, I’m not sure that this is a typical “feel-good” film, because so much of it is frustratingly unfair to watch. Prison films that conclude with a release are often fixated on a kind of death/rebirth cycle, this concept of going through hell and coming out the other side a transformed person. But because Warner never committed the crime, he doesn’t really get the type of redemption narrative we’re so used to seeing. Nor does he traverse a nightmarish prison hellscape of gang warfare and murderous self-defense, and while he is certainly tested and abused by the thuggish guards, they don’t really manifest as his primary enemies, either. And if I said that his primary enemy was really “hope,” that still sounds unfairly pessimistic.
James Baldwin once said “You’ve got to tell the world how to treat you. If the world tells you how you are going to be treated, you are in trouble.” Colin Warner’s identity and truth were more important than his freedom, which seemed meaningless to a system that wouldn’t recognize them, and Carl King refuted the system that would deny his friend on these terms. Let’s remember that this is a battle still left to fight.