Director: Matt Ruskin
Screenwriter: Matt Ruskin
Cast: LaKeith Stanfield, Nnande Asomugha, Natalie Paul, Bill Camp, Nestor Carbonell, Amari Cheatom, Brian Tyree Henry
Screened at: Critics’ link,
Opens: August 18, 2017. On Disc December 8, 2017
Matt Ruskin, who wrote and directs “Crown Heights” and who a few years earlier directed “The Hip Hop Project” (which takes a benevolent look at Rap), finds a few brief moments to show archival clips of some U.S. presidents who had bent over backwards to cater to a popular will. (Read: the will of the deplorables.) Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton (the last being a Democrat who did not rule as a progressive) all told the American people that, in effect, violent criminals should be put behind bars and the keys should be thrown away. Because of the belief by ignorant people that the severity of a convicted person’s sentence is justice for the victim, America now has the largest per capita percentage of people in jail at 2.4 million and the most severe sentences in the developed world. Aside from the injustices of the American penal system, the district attorneys, many of whom must stand for election and re-election, are so determined to bulk up their conviction rates that they will send innocent people to prison, sometimes by promising even those innocents to plead guilty to lesser offenses and get a smaller sentence.
We now know that some innocent people have been executed, while it is predicted that 120,000 now behind bars are likewise untainted. But the appeals process is so jammed with cases that it could take years to get before an appellate judge. Meanwhile people who should be free sit and smolder behind bars while taking a lot of crap from the guards. All this is brought out by articles in journals, such as the one in the January-February 2018 issue of The Atlantic, but for a more dramatic look at this situation, one which taints America with a criminal justice system that is creaky at best and corrupt at worst, you can’t do better this year than “Crown Heights.”
There are a few good people in the drama, some almost saintly in their dedication to get an innocent man freed, and a lot of bad folks such as a fellow who actually committed a murder but implicated a neighbor as co-defendant. There were eyewitnesses to the crime who refused to come forth. As a result, one Colin Warner (LaKeith Stanfield), a resident of the mostly African-American community of Crown Heights Brooklyn, was sent upstate to Dannemora Prison, a mostly white community with principally white guards.
Though some might accuse the movie of being a nothing-new copy of a “Law and Order” program on the TV, there is considerable tension furthered by the big-screen treatment of a rank injustice. The enterprise gains credibility not only because it is based on a true event, but because of the splendid acting especially from LaKeith Standfeld and from his dedicated friend and fellow Trinidadian Carl King (Nnande Asomugha).
The story is yet another realization of Shakespeare’s disgust with “the law’s delay, insolence of office,” and even the Bard’s desire to “kill all the lawyers.” One of the gross violations of justice occurs when Carl King, raising money for his pal’s appeal, hires a hot shot lawyer specializing in appeals who appears to do only what is barely necessary, then refusing to follow up unless he receives more money.
Sports fans may recognize Asomugha as a former player on the National Football League’s Oakland Raiders who had a hand in producing this film. To the extent that this story is based on truth, we can see what a person so dedicated to free his buddy can do with persistence. Persistence is the key to success, as our school guidance counselors keep telling us.
Of course we cannot expect a national turn of sympathy from the dilemma of one man who after twenty-years’ imprisonment is finally released—after having married his childhood sweetheart in prison and getting his GED and community college credentials. One lesson that may be missed by some watching the film is that when you’re a kid and not as responsible as you should be, you go steal a car or two and you’ve got a record that will be considered by the authorities should you be accused of something more serious later. “Crown Heights” is deserving of a solid audience and is now available with streaming.
Rated R. 99 minutes. © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – B+
Acting – B+
Technical – B
Overall – B+