Crown Heights

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This is a true story based on Colin Warner. It had been told on the podcast This American Life, and now we get the film version. In 1980, at the age of 18, Warner was arrested for a murder he didn’t commit. Not only didn’t he commit it, he didn’t even know the person involved. The NYPD, perhaps wanting to close cases they had no leads on, pressured a witness into identifying him from an old mug shot. A high bail was set, and eventually the real murderer was caught. It wasn’t that hard, as the person had threatened to kill the guy in retaliation for the victim shooting his cousin. For some reason, Warner got tied in as an accomplice that drove the getaway vehicle.

Warner ends up in prison, as his friends rally to get him out.

Warner is played by Lakeith Stanfield, who was good in Short Term 12 (a movie done by San Diego filmmaker Destin Daniel Cretton). That lead to roles in Straight Outta Compton and Selma. In his first starring role, Stanfield doesn’t disappoint. His face can convey violence in some scenes, desperation in others. He pulls off the Haitian accent well, too.

Writer/director Matt Ruskin (The Hip Hop Project) does the movie as a straightforward telling of the facts. I would’ve preferred learning a bit more about the other characters involved. The film feels a bit thin, but…it’s only 90 minutes, so perhaps he didn’t want to bog things down.

There are a few very powerful scenes in this. In one, he tells the woman he had a crush on (Natalie Paul), “Most of these prisoners here…know deep down, they put themselves here. I don’t have that comfort.”

It’s refreshing that, after the fictionalized garbage that was Detroit a few months ago, this movie seems to play it straight. For example, when Warner punches a prison guard and gets roughed up…sure, we dislike that guard. But he’s not being some racist, crazy guard. He’s telling the prisoners to “move along” and when Warner pauses, the guard gets a little physical, which leans Warner to attacking him. That’s a lot more likely how these things happen, then a movie like the Tupac film, where the guard just starts beating him up using the n-word. As if that would’ve happened to a prisoner that was rich and famous like Tupac.

I would’ve liked a scene where we see Warner, who gets his GED and is productive in prison, is shown studying and becoming a changed man.

Nnamdi Asomugha is great as the friend that works tirelessly to try to free his friend, despite it hurting his marriage.

Asomugha isn’t known for his small part in the Sally Field film Hello, My Name is Doris. It’s more likely football fans will know him for his eight years in the NFL as a fast cornerback (with the Raiders and Eagles).

The movie would get extra credit for playing my favorite rap song of all time — The Message by Grandmaster Flash. The problem is this took place two years before that song was released.

I also wish the movie was titled something else. There was a previous Crown Heights, and…that’s the town this took place in. Not sure that’s the best title for this.

A lot of the early reviews for this have critics talking about how the police and justice system is so racist. When I left the theatre after the screening, two young women in front of me were saying, “The moral of this story is…the system is racist and gets things wrong.”

I was tempted to tap them on the shoulder and say, “You realize that…Colin Warner was stealing cars and selling them. He had a rap sheet for other crimes, too. That’s why the police had his mugshot on file to show a witness.”

I’m guessing that bit of info would’ve fallen on deaf ears.

It doesn’t mean the guy deserved to do time for a murder he didn’t commit, but it’s something to think about when everyone is so quick to judge the system we have.

3 stars out of 5.