Justice is often personified as a woman holding a sword in one hand, a set of scales in the other, and wearing a blindfold. The sword represents authority, the scales the willingness to fairly weigh opposing testimony, and the blindfold impartiality in the sense that everyone has equal standing before the law. However, in some cases the blindfold seems to signify something else entirely: that the justice system can be willfully blind to the facts of a case, basing decisions instead on predetermined notions or even convenience. Everyone wants to see a conviction in a capital case, for instance, and the push to obtain a conviction can result in someone, but not the right someone, being convicted. The justice system wins, in that a high-profile case can be closed, but the individual wrongfully convicted may see his or her life destroyed as a result.
You may not recall the case of Colin Warner (I didn’t), but the basic outline as presented in Matt Ruskin’s Crown Heights is painfully familiar. In 1980, a juvenile is shot and killed on the streets of Brooklyn. An even younger juvenile witnesses the shooting, and is interrogated by the police for six hours without a guardian present. At some point during that interrogation, the witness fingers Colin Warner (Lakeith Stanfield), an 18-year-old immigrant from Trinidad, as a participant in the crime. The juvenile witness can only identify Warner in a lineup after being prompted by a police officer, but still Warner is arrested and charged with second-degree murder. Warner is represented by a series of ineffectual public attorneys, some of whom can’t even bother to make it to court, and despite the almost complete lack of evidence against him, is convicted and sentenced to 15 years to life.
This all takes place early in the film, while most of the running time alternates between scenes of Warner’s life in prison and the efforts of a large and supportive community to get justice for him. Crown Heights is straightforward to a fault and doesn’t bring much that’s new to the telling of this particular story, but the familiar tropes are well-executed and the acting is strong. Another plus is the positive portrayal of Warner’s family and friends, many of them Caribbean immigrants like him, who have few resources but remain united in their determination to free him from prison. Leading the charge is Warner’s childhood friend Carl King (Nnamdi Asogmugha), who manages to scrape together the funds to hire a private lawyer, William Robedee (Bill Camp), who understands how the legal system works and is willing and able to put in the work give Warner a chance for the justice he was earlier denied.
The main problem with Crown Heights is that Ruskin (who also wrote the screenplay) consistently settles for the most obvious choices, in everything from shot selection (a key reason this film could easily be mistaken for a TV show) to story beats to the characters that populate it. Stanfield and Asogmugha’s roles are the most richly written, and they do an impressive job in bringing this familiar tale to life, but the other actors have much less to work with. The result is that despite good work from the actors, their characters don’t make the most interesting company over 100 minutes of Crown Heights’ running time, no matter how righteous their cause. Ruskin’s occasional cuts to current events footage (Warner’s conviction took place in an era when the call to “get tough on crime” resonated with many people, regardless of their race or political affiliation) are unnecessary and detract from development of the main story line. Still, Warner’s story deserves to be more widely known, and Crown Heights does an acceptable, if not overly original, job doing just that. | Sarah Boslaugh