Lakeith Stanfield delivers a breakout performance in “Crown Heights,” a dramatized true story of miscarried justice that he anchors with restrained stillness and sensitivity.
In 1980, Colin Warner, a Trinidad native living in Brooklyn, was convicted of murder, identified by two teens later found to have been manipulated and railroaded by the police. After serving more than 20 years in prison, Warner was finally released thanks to the tireless efforts of his best friend, Carl “KC” King.
Portrayed by Stanfield in a watchful, wounded performance, Warner is sympathetic from the get-go in “Crown Heights,” which begins with snippets of reggae music and “The Message” before swiftly moving through a petty crime that he did commit, an arrest for a murder that he didn’t, two years spent in jail and a perfunctory trial.
Accenting the narrative with video montages of cultural and political changes over the two decades of Warner’s incarceration in state prison, writer/director Matt Ruskin points up the law-and-order policies that came into vogue during the period, first under Ronald Reagan and later under George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
As compelling as Warner’s story is, “Crown Heights,” never quite takes hold cinematically. It’s a procedural whose central protagonist remains necessarily passive and something of a cipher, despite the emotion that Stanfield manages to tap simply by gazing balefully out a cell window. At one point, he disappears from the narrative entirely as KC (Nnamdi Asomugha) and neighborhood friend Antoinette (Natalie Paul) embark on their own investigation of the case.
It’s clear Ruskin wanted to avoid the kind of lurid imagery that has invited criticism for a similarly themed movie, “Detroit.” Whereas Kathryn Bigelow’s film immersed viewers in the uncompromising world of impunity, abuse and indifference, “Crown Heights” takes a more low-key, measured tone. It also gives its black characters the power to fight back and moral victory pointedly missing in the story that unfolded a generation earlier.
Do we really need another cautionary tale — albeit in a more arms-length style and set in a different time period — about essentially the same thing? With the dogged resourcefulness worthy of its characters, “Crown Heights” suggests not only that we do, but that we haven’t had nearly enough.
Rated R for obscenity, some sexuality, nudity and violence.