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Crown Heights (Sundance London 2017 Review)

Crown Heights, written and directed by Matt Ruskin, is a flawed if well-meaning biographical drama that tackles the true story of Colin Warner, who was wrongfully convicted of murder and spent 21 years in prison.

Colin’s story is the story of a man who fell through the cracks of the US justice system. Everything from the investigation to the trial itself was mishandled in all kinds of ways, resulting in then 18-year old Colin Warner (as played by Keith Stanfield) being convicted of murdering a man he didn’t know and had never met.

Crown Heights aims to tell his story from that faithful day he was arrested all the way to his eventual release from prison more than two decades later but commits several blunders along the way.

The first and most obvious one is that Crown Heights is terrible at conveying the passage of time. The movie is edited in a way that makes years, sometimes even decades, pass all too quickly. Early on, it jumps from 6 months after the initial arrest to 2 years later and apart from the text informing the viewer of this, there’s very little indication that that much time has passed.

This is tied into the movie’s second biggest problem, which is that none of the characters age appropriately. Their appearances are tweaked, their costumes and hairstyles constantly change, but Crown Heights does a poor job of convincing you that the people at the end of the movie are more than twenty years older than those at the start of it. The biggest change Colin seems to go through is that he starts to wear glasses.

Both of these issues drastically minimize the dramatic impact of Colin’s prison time. It just doesn’t feel anywhere near as harrowing as it should be. This is further exasperated by the fact that the movie itself isn’t as interested in Colin. Most of the drama actually rests with Carl King (as played by Nnamdi Asomugha) and his struggle to prove his friend’s innocence.

Carl’s refusal to let his friend rot in prison, the roadblocks he faces, whether it be financial troubles, unwilling witnesses or terrible lawyers and the strain the whole situation puts on his relationship with his family – a lot of Crown Heights is dedicated to that as opposed to Colin himself. There are long stretches of the movie where he barely shows up.

Fortunately, Carl’s investigation and his pursuit of justice is compelling. The movie tries to make a case that “this could happen to anyone”, but it rings a bit false. The focus is too narrow. Crown Heights is not so much a hard-hitting indictment on the faults in the criminal justice system in general, as it is an example of its shortcomings in one very particular instance.

Everyone gives a solid performance. Stanfield plays Colin with the air of an earnest victim for most of the movie, which makes the select few scenes where Colin’s temper flares and he lashes out all the more meaningful.

Crown Heights is a little too muddled and ineffective to really strike a chord, despite being based on a harrowing and very important true story. It’s worth familiarizing yourself with the details of Colin Warner’s case and as such, Crown Heights could serve as a useful starting point – but dramatically, it’s a misfire.

Rating
5.0
Pros
  • Strong performances
  • An important story worth telling
Cons
  • Terrible at conveying the passage of time
  • Nobody ages as they should

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