Wrongfully accused of murdering a fellow teenager in a drive-by shooting, Colin Warner (Lakeith Stanfield) was arrested in August of 1980, and despite an unreliable witness whose testimony changed repeatedly and a complete lack of forensic evidence, convicted of second-degree murder. Warner would go on to spend more than two decades behind bars, while his childhood friend Carl King (Nnamdi Asomugha) worked tirelessly on the outside to prove his innocence and set Warner free.
It’s the kind of heartbreaking and infuriating story that feels tailor-made for the big screen, but writer-director Matt Ruskin’s approach to Warner’s story falls well short of the “This American Life” episode on which his screenplay is based. That black men are failed by the American legal system in disproportionate numbers is every bit as true now as it was in the early 1980s, but Crown Heights does little to explore or address this fact. After Warner’s exoneration and release, the systematic corruption that led to his conviction is never mentioned, and we never learn whether or not the real villains – the detectives and prosecutors who ignored the facts of the case and allowed an innocent man to go to prison for a crime they knew he did not commit – receive any kind of comeuppance.
Nor does Crown Heights provide satisfactory insight into the trials that Warner faced behind bars, or the psychological toll that was exacted on him by years spent in solitary confinement – a fact which the film briefly acknowledges before skipping forward by several years. Similarly glossed over is a romance with Antoinette (Natalie Paul), a girl from the neighborhood with whom Warner flirts prior to his arrest, who then disappears for a lengthy portion of the film before visiting him in prison and quickly becoming his wife.
Working with limited resources, Stanfield manages a compelling and soulful performance, but it’s hard to feel like his considerable talent isn’t being wasted by a lack of depth, and a story like Warner’s deserves to be given more room to breathe. As King, former NFL All-Star Asomugha fares somewhat better on his journey from sympathetic friend to tireless crusader, enduring his own losses and sacrifices along the way, but even these could have used some additional screentime instead of being shoved into the background. Crown Heights seems fully content to paint only in the broadest of strokes, but the emotional core of this story lies in the details which it unfortunately chooses to neglect.
A thoroughly compelling real-life story should make for an equally engaging cinematic experience, but a refusal to truly explore its subjects or themes renders the film underwhelming.