In 1980’s New York City, crime was at an all-time high, and wrongful convictions rose in parallel. For one teenager in particular, a false identification nearly cost him his life.
CROWN HEIGHTS thoughtfully tackles this intense topic — still relevant today — by highlighting a blatant injustice that spanned more than 20 years.
April 10, 1980, started like any other day for Colin Warner, an 18-year-old Trinidadian immigrant living in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood. He went to class, joked around with his friends … and stole a car to pick up a TV for his family.
That same morning, a single gunshot rang throughout nearby Flatbush, a mostly Caribbean community, where young girls skipped Double Dutch around the corner.
This wasn’t out of the ordinary. There were more reported murders, robberies, burglaries, and thefts of automobiles and other items in 1980 than in any previous year since the police department began compiling such statistics 49 years prior. Officials, pressured by citizens and politicians to crack down on offenders, pushed for more convictions — sometimes, at any cost.
Such is the case in CROWN HEIGHTS, the film based on Warner’s real-life, unjust incarnation.
Colin Warner (Keith Stanfield) has a criminal past and the mug shot to prove it. This, along with a pressured witness statement, results in his arrest that spring day of 1980 — not for theft, but for murder.
In custody, Warner is denied bail and forced to wait for trail, which takes nearly two years to come. When his day in court eventually arrives, he is paired with the actual murderer and convicted — not based on motive or evidence, but the testimony of an unreliable 15-year-old (Skylan Brooks) who recants while on the stand. The judge awards him 15 years to life, the shortest possible sentence.
CROWN HEIGHTS, written and directed by Matt Ruskin, progresses through Warner’s entire imprisonment, which lasts long after the crime’s perpetrator has been released.
Though the film jumps ahead from months to years, time moves in slow motion for Warner. He spends his days in prison making allies, furthering his education and trying to stay sane, while his childhood friend, Carl “KC” King (Nnamdi Asomugha), gathers donations for Warner’s appeals.
All four are denied, as is Warner’s opportunity for parole until he admits guilt and expresses remorse. (He refuses to.) When Warner all but gives up, King takes on the case himself — learning the law and how to read court records, taking out loans for lawyer fees, and tracking down witnesses.
This is the moment the film really builds momentum: The narrative shifts from Warner’s sense of prolonged defeat to King’s urgency. As a viewer, you feel the tension boiling, and you pray this attempt to free Warner will be the last.
Both Stanfield and Asomugha command the big screen, but in completely different ways: As Warner, Stanfield is quiet and introspective, yet powerful; you see everything he’s bearing in his eyes. In contrast, Asomugha wears his heart on his sleeve. He is deeply affected by Warner’s plight, not only emotionally but also literally, through conflicts with his wife.
Though CROWN HEIGHTS centers on Warner’s story, there is a bigger message behind the film: There are major flaws within the U.S. legal system; this could happen to anyone. Of the 2.4 million people in prison, an estimated 120,000 are innocent.
Don’t miss your opportunity to see the 2017 Sundance Audience Award Winner at AMC on Friday, September 8. Get your tickets for CROWN HEIGHTS today.