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Hope and Despair Battle in ‘Crown Heights’

Crown Heights isn’t the tidiest film but that untidiness (so very much like real life) is a lot of its strength.

Deborah Klugman

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Lakeith Stanfield and Natalie Paul

Sometimes a single tale of injustice can have greater impact than a tome of statistics. That’s how I responded to Crown Heights, writer/director Matt Ruskin’s gritty, gripping film, an unvarnished rendering of one man’s wrongful incarceration.

The film tells the story of Colin Warner, who in 1980 was arrested, charged and convicted for a murder he did not commit, and spent 21 years in prison before being exonerated and freed.

The spine of the movie is Lakeith Stanfield’s uncommonly sensitive portrayal of Colin, whom we meet as a slight, diffident teenager living in a shabby Brooklyn apartment with his mom. A not very skillful petty criminal (early on, we see him hot-wiring a car, which he crashes, and stealing a clunky old TV), Collin interns in an auto mechanics shop, while carrying an abiding torch for a former elementary school classmate, Antoinette (Natalie Paul). One evening he works up the courage to ask her for a date; the encounter never materializes, however, since the following day he’s picked up by the police, who claim an eyewitness has identified him as the perpetrator of a shooting in nearby Flatbush.

Although no motive is established, and the police have no weapon and no physical evidence, Colin is convicted and sentenced to 15 years. At a parole hearing he’s asked to express remorse; when he protests he can’t feel remorse for a crime he didn’t commit, he’s tongue-lashed by the board chair and denied release. Subjected to bullying and beating by the prison guards, he strikes back and ends up in solitary confinement, with years added to his original sentence. In one of the narrative’s cruelest ironies (and there are more than a few), he is still languishing in prison long after the real culprit (who’d been a co-defendant) has been freed — and confessed to the crime.

When, after endless appeals are denied, and Colin’s latest lawyer quits, Conlin’s lifelong friend, KC (Nnamdi Asomugha), fights on alone. Eventually he hooks up with William J. Robedee (Bill Camp), who runs a modest law practice out of his apartment. KC raises money from the community for legal expenses, and pores tirelessly over court transcripts, tracking down key witnesses until incontrovertible proof of Colin’s innocence can be brought before a judge.

Shot in dark, somber shades by cinematographer Ben Kutchins, Crown Heights is a sprawling work that exudes the look and feel of a searing (and at times hard to bear) documentary. Scenes with Colin— his trial, his years in prison, his relationship with Antoinette, who visits him and eventually becomes his wife — are interwoven with KC’s battle with the judicial system and the strains those efforts put on his marriage. Ruskin also furnishes historical perspective by inserting clips of presidents Reagan, GHW Bush and Clinton at various times declaiming a war on crime; such sequences lend even crueler irony to the depictions of crooked cops and vituperative DAs, who distort or withhold information as Colin endures behind bars.

Crown Heights isn’t the tidiest film. It doesn’t progress in a smooth arc; spanning the years, it sidles, with sometimes abrupt transitions from one scenario to another: Colin in isolation, KC tracking down witnesses or arguing with his wife about the cost of this crusade on their marriage. But this untidiness (so very much like real life) is a lot of its strength. That and the thoroughly naturalistic performances make for an intense “you are there” experience of a Job-like narrative that’s hard to forget.

One of the reasons we remain riveted is possibly the same reason that Colin, however despairing, never entirely gives up, and that has to do with the beautiful and tender moments that serve as brief respites from the ugly rest. These are his scenes with Antoinette, portrayed by Paul with ingrained loveliness, and occasional flashbacks he has of a lost Eden in Trinidad with his loving grandmother.

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