Through no small feat, prison films often communicate the passage of years worth of time into two-hour microcosms of torment and reflection. Despite the 142-minute running time of The Shawshank Redemption, length should never be a measuring stick of greatness. Sometimes, the bones can tell as much about an experience as the meat. In all honesty, it doesn’t take much to convey the simple and universal point that is attached to prison movies:
LESSON #1: PRISON IS PUNISHING AGONY OF THE HIGHEST DEGREE-- Very few folks leave a prison sentence unchanged. The rigors of prison are more mental than physical. Punitive by design, what is supposed to be corrective often turns dehumanizing. The solitude alone is enough to define the agony, let alone the other abusive stories from prisons. Pile those on and the trauma increases.
Director Matt Ruskin’s Crown Heights presents a true story of this all-too-common hardship of incarceration as it happened to an innocent man. Just when you think two undue years awaiting trial are shameful enough, it turns into twenty over the course of four presidencies and 99 tidy minutes. To tell the story of Colin Warner is to tell a story shared by too many thousands of other wrongfully incarcerated people within the U.S. prison system.
In Brooklyn during the spring of 1980, 16-year-old Mario Hamilton was shot and killed in a crime where witnesses fled, stayed silent, or changed their stories. Rounded up by harassing detectives after being picked out of an album of mug shots, Colin Warner, played by Lakeith Stanfield from Short Term 12 and Get Out, was apprehended and charged with second-degree murder. At the time, Colin was an 18-year-old immigrant from Trinidad working on an apprenticeship program to become an auto mechanic with his close friend Carl King (producer and former NFL All-Pro Nnamdi Asomugha). Weak evidence and even flimsier testimonies in a malformed judicial system led to an unwarranted conviction and a 15-year prison sentence.
Powerless to help the cause and adamant in innocence, Colin weathered years of persecution on the inside while Carl faced failed appeals on the outside learning to work as a process server. Eventually, the institutional wickedness abates, and Colin earns an education and gets married to the benevolent Antoinette (Natalie Paul of HBO’s The Deuce). Despite those events, maintaining any hope of true freedom was always the challenge, even when one attorney, William Robedee (outstanding character actor Bill Camp), shows promise and optimism.
Through a tipped balance of actions over words, the forlorn eyes and slight frame of Lakeith Stanfield present a beleaguered stature that is nothing short of heartbreaking at every turn and every passing year behind bars. Trodding with heavy defeat and convincing anguish, his performance seizes absolute empathy. He is a supremely talented performer who is only 26. Also tip your hat to Nnamdi Asomugha, transitioning careers with promising skill and a generosity to put his money where his mouth is behind the scenes as an involved producer.
Without a hint of lost sorrow, voice, or power compared to longer prison films, Crown Heights is remarkably successful at succinctly imparting Lesson #1. We don’t need multiple and excessive scenes at hammering home any jailed agony. A thin brush can still create bold strokes. Less is more and Ruskin’s script is free of grandiose Hollywood-style pontification and superfluous drops of poetic wax. Orchestral swings spanning haunting to genteel from documentary composer specialist Mark De Gli Antoni reinforce the entirely serious tone appropriate for this burdensome journey.
Crown Heights is a film that cuts through the fat and straight to the marrow. With restrained focus and narrative efficiency, it shoulders a sobering presence to both impress and inspire. It stands as but declaration of a larger troubled landscape. The inherent social commentary debate is wisely reserved for after the screen experience.
LESSON #2: THE NEGATIVE TRAPPINGS OF OUR JUSTICE SYSTEM-- The last footnote of Crown Heights shares the statistic that there are over 2.4 million people incarcerated in this country and adds the estimation that 120,000 of them may be innocent. Gravity of the crime and respect for the law are hard to come by when unfairness corrupts too many layers of the system. Pair this feature film with Ava DuVerney’s award-winning documentary 13th on Netflix and better your cognizance to a true societal fissure decaying our nation.
LESSON #3: INNOCENCE CAN BE AS PROVEN AS GUILT-- Carl King and William Robedee showed the enduring efforts necessary make this lesson true. One was a friend who never gave up on a fellow friend and the other was a lawyer who put in the work to do a job right. Despite crippling bleakness, Colin’s persistence to maintain his own innocence earned those worthy efforts. He found people who would listen. Many others waste away waiting for the same.