Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Review: "Crown Heights"

Lakeith Stanfield is one of the brightest lights among young actors in Hollywood today. I remember being blown away by his feature film debut, “Short Term 12,” and he’s acquitted himself well in supporting roles since then in “Miles Ahead,” “Straight Outta Compton,” “Selma” and more.

Now he gets his chance at a starring role in “Crown Heights,” playing a man wrongfully convicted for a murder he didn’t commit. Colin Warner eventually won his freedom, and if there’s any justice in the cinematic world then Stanfield’s portrayal of him will be remembered during the looming awards season.

It’s a fully fleshed-out performance as a wronged man who literally found himself picked up off the street at random. Stanfield takes the character from age 18 to about 40, and we watch him grow from a docile kid bewildered by what’s happening to him to an embittered but proud man who righteously refuses to express remorse for something he didn’t do.

As a result, Colin’s prison sentence stretches past 20 years, as the wheels of the justice system grind at an achingly slow pace. Meanwhile, the teen who actually committed the murder (Anthony Gibson) is let out after just a few years because he was a minor when he committed the crime.

It’s the sort of bracing filmmaking that leaves you aching with anger, but also filled with admiration at how people can endure great injustice.

Written and directed by Matt Ruskin, “Crown Heights” is careful not to depict Colin as a choir boy. Indeed, the early part of the film prior to his arrest shows him stealing a car in his Brooklyn neighborhood, a multicultural district where many people are foreign-born like himself, originally hailing from Trinidad. While good-hearted in his nature, he’s not above inflicting harm on a fellow immigrant if it puts a few bucks in his pocket.

But when he’s arrested and police demand he confess to a shooting, Colin balks. Not only was he not involved, he doesn’t even know the boy who was killed or the murderer. It’s as if the investigation began and ended with picking a random name and face out of a book of mugshots.

Denied bail, Colin waits nearly two years for his trial, feeling abandoned by his friends and family. Only Carl King (a superlative Nnamdi Asomugha), his best friend, continues the fight on his behalf.

Convicted on the barest of evidence -- the prime witness actually admits on the stand that he lied about Colin’s involvement -- he begins a decades-long journey to reclaim his good name and freedom.

You’d call it a comedy of errors, except it’s not funny and the mistakes were willful ones by law enforcement and prosecutors who were bent on getting a conviction, no matter what.

Natalie Paul plays Antoinette, a teen love interest who learns years later of his incarceration, and signs on to the team fighting for his exoneration. Bill Camp plays William Robedee, the lone wolf attorney who eventually agreed to take Colin’s case.

While race is never overtly presented as the reason for Colin’s wrongful conviction, the issue lingers in the background of every scene. For instance, the white prison guard who takes a special interest in berating the timid young man, cutting off his phone call to his grandmother on her birthday after a single minute, and so on. This leads to Colin being labeled a problem inmate, expanding his initial sentence of 15 years.

A powerful and moving film experience, “Crown Heights” is a resounding lesson that our criminal justice structure, which purports to rest on a bedrock of certitude, is too often a hollow system in which the weak are sucked into a pit of despair.

Here is one of the year’s finest performances in one of the year’s best films.

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