DA 5 BLOODS – movie review

Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Spike Lee
Writer: Danny Bilson, Paul De Meo, Kevin Willmott
Cast: Delroy Lindo, Jonathan Majors, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, Isiah Whitlock Jr.
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 12/14/20
Opens: June 13, 2020

Da 5 Bloods Film Poster

Spike Lee’s testosterone picture is no mere action-adventure film. The war scenes play out to evoke Lee’s overriding message: African-Americans have fought for our country in the Civil War, two World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, and assorted skirmishes, but the promise of America has not been kept. Police racism, Presidential bigotry, and general all-purpose fear and hatred have been part of our DNA’s since the first slave ship arrived in 1619. In fact Trump’s popularity is engendered in large part by his put-downs of Black and brown people, whether curtailing immigration from countries with people or color or advising us that militias like the Proud Boys are filled with good people. Lee throws in archival films not only of scenes from the Vietnam War but also of speeches by Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Kwame Ture, Angela Davis, Muhammad Ali, and others, all hinting that the promise to African-Americans has not been fulfilled.

“Da 5 Bloods” enjoys a script from the minds of Kevin Willmott, who co-wrote “BlacKkKlansman” with a screenplay by Danny Bilson and Paul DeMeo.

Vietnam, where the five title African-Americans had served, illustrates the bond that the quintet had formed since their service in what Vietnam calls “The American War.” They had made the long journey from the United States to bring back the body of Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman), one of their fighters, killed in action some five decades earlier. The discovery of gold bars which the American forces had left behind after a military aircraft was wrecked, leads them into battles with Vietnamese, who claim the riches as theirs, resulting in the deaths of some of the “bloods” by adversaries that include a French fortune hunter and a group of near-crazed locals.

As Paul, Delroy Lindo, best known to TV viewers for his role as a partner in a law firm in “The Good Fight” often
considered the best show on the tube, has suffered from PTSD, or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder since his soldier days in the Vietnam War.

Using identifying handshakes and lots of excited talk, Paul (Delroy Lindo) Otis (Clarke Peters), Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) and Eddie (Norm Lewis) meet up in Saigon, sharing their dismal treatment by Americans who called them baby killers (never mind that they were drafted and that the real killer was sitting in the Oval Office). Vinh (Johnny Tri Nguyen) serves as their guide, though some of the bloods believe that he is ideologically “in” with the Viet Cong communists. During their adventure, Otis visits his lover from the war days, finding out that she has a kid and that Otis is the dad. Among the real heroes, Hedy (Mélanie Thierry) shows up, announcing that she has repudiated her family’s fortune and is now altruistically with a group dedicated to removing old land mines.

Naturally the African-American adventurers do not always agree with one another. Otis does not entirely trust Paul, and David (Jonathan Majors), who turns up with the group, has had difficulties connecting with his father, largely because of the latter’s PTSD. Though “Da 5 Bloods” is an ensemble piece and will compete for end-year awards as such, each character has his own identity, from the hotblooded Paul to the generally calmer Melvin. Cameos include a re-creation of a Tokyo-Rose type of newscaster who, during the war, broadcasts to the Americans that racism exists at home, implying that the Vietnamese communists are not their real enemy. She notes that eleven percent of America is African-American, yet they comprise thirty-two percent of soldiers in the war.

Action scenes, archival films, evocations of racism in America down to this day make “Da 5 Bloods” my choice for Best Ensemble, allowing me to vote for the picture when New York Film Critics Online considers the best in fifteen categories.

156 minutes. © 2020 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – A-
Technical – A-
Overall – B+


DOLEMITE IS MY NAME – movie review

Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Craig Brewer
Screenwriter: Larry Karaszewski, Scott Alexander
Cast: Eddie Murphy, Keegan-Michael Key, Mike Epps, Craig Robinson, Tituss Burgess, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Noop Dogg
Screened at: Dolby88, NYC, 10/3/19
Opens: October 4, 2019

Dolemite Is My Name Movie Poster

Eddie Murphy is back and back big! “Dolemite is My Name” is a vastly entertaining, noisy, chaotic and wonderful comedy which takes off from the principal character’s thesis that “Black people like explosions, car crashes and titties.” Sounds like something that transcends race, but in many ways, Craig Brewer’s biopic finds that blacks and whites may have different senses of humor. Never mind: spun by this mostly African-American cast, the jokes and situations can be universally understood and embraced.

Under the direction of Craig Brewer, the perfect guy for the task having made films like “Hustle & Flow” (Memphis pimp in midlife crisis tries to become a hip-hop emcee), Murphy anchors the comedy as a man down on luck. Like Terrence Howard’s character Dj in “Hustle and Flow,” Rudy Ray Moore is not satisfied being a mere record store clerk, eager to break out with his own music, frustrated that nobody would touch his singles. Moore is compelled to work a shift in a nightclub where he bombs. Unable to catch the attention he needs as either a singer or a stand-up comic, he runs into a homeless man who is a repository of stories, which Moore appropriates for his own nightclub act and voilá: he has his crowd screaming. The more obscene the better. When he can’t sell the disc to a local JD as it’s too dirty to put on the air, he successfully markets it from his car trunk. He takes on the name Dolemite, and he’s on his way up.

Moore, dressed in a huge array of costumes, the pimp-ier the better, excites his all African-American crowd. He hits on one Lady Reed (D’Vine Joy Randolph), convincing her to team up with him. He watches the movie “Front Page” in a theater with an appreciative white audience, looking around and wondering why he’s the only person who doesn’t get it. That gives him an idea. Why not open up a movie starring him, all-black cast, giving his target audience what they want most: white guys as baddies, taken down with karate chops and automatic gunfire, a sex scene (which, though meant to be romantic turns out hilarious), and all-around mayhem. Plans get realized when he rents a run-down hotel, hires white guys from the local film school who know how to put a movie together, and lands a celeb, D’Urville Martin (Wesley Snipes) to co-star with Moore and to direct.

Eddie Murphy is a spellbinder, set to rivet his real movie audience as he does the folks in the cast, a Horario Alger story, if you will, about picking yourself up from the ground, dusting yourself off, and making it big. With a large and delightfully vulgar ensemble, especially Wesley Snipes and Da’Vine Joy Randolph and lots of loud songs to keep our blood flowing, “Dolemite is My Name” is not only a blast but informs us about the rules of the marketing game and how they can be embraced and overturned as well.

117 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – A-
Technical – B+
Overall – B+


Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Joe Talbot
Screenwriter: Joe Talbot, Rob Richert, story by Jonathan Majors, Joe Talbot
Cast: Jimmie Fails, Jonathan Majors, Rob Morgan, Tichina Arnold, Mike Epps, Finn Wittrock, Danny Glover, Willie Hen, Jamal Truvole
Screened at: Dolby88, NYC, 6/3/19
Opens: June 7, 2019

The Last Black Man in San Francisco Movie Poster

In Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo,” one of the many movies taking place in San Francisco, Gavin Elster complains to retired police detective Scottie Ferguson, that the city is not what it used to be. This becomes the theme of Joe Talbot’s “The Last Black Man in San Francisco, an ode to one of America’s most touristic metropolises, one of our few cities that do not require residents to get about by car. Nostalgia-minded people might well lament that its history of being sanctuaries for African-Americans who left the oppressive South and immigrants who fled from political and economic countries has become an ultra-expensive playground for the rich and upcoming tech executives settling into its gentrified homes. In his debut feature, fifth-generation San Franciscan Joe Talbot makes use of his long-term friendship with Jimmie Fails to create a heart-rending film of marginalized people, cast aside by the “progressive” changes in residential quarters, but who have never forgotten their cherished childhoods in the Bay area. The pic is all the more remarkable not only as Talbot’s first shot at a feature but in the range of emotions explored by its chief characters, played by Jimmie Fails and Jonathan Majors.

“The Last Black Man in San Francisco” will likely be one of this year’s few movies that are gloriously theatrical, reminding serious theatergoers of themes toyed with by the late August Wilson—whose Pittsburgh cycle of ten plays each hone in on a different decade, comic and tragic, of 20th century African-Americans. Talbot’s tale deals with the all-encompassing themes of community, friendship, and the magic of home, treating home as the refuge from an often dangerous and anarchic world, a childhood domicile which many of us today try to reclaim.

Patience is required, as that virtue often is, when a story does not immediately congeal but takes its time, skipping from place to place and character to character, making more sense only as it goes along until we in the audience realize, “Aha!” Its anchor is the friendship of Montgomery, or Mont (Jonathan Majors), an aspiring playwright and illustrator, and Jimmie Fails (Jimmy Fails), who sells fish by day even despite warnings from a well-dressed orator who opens the movie with a denunciation of the toxic waters that have changed the environment for the hapless creatures that will wind up in Monty’s retail department. Jimmie’s memories of better times decades back take on tangible form as he rides about the area on a colorful skateboard which will eventually—both metaphorically and physically—be smashed in anger. Jimmie had once lived with his father (Rob Morgan) in a Victorian house which his dad had lost because of a drug problem. He becomes obsessed with the place notwithstanding its occupancy by an elderly couple, shown dramatically when he undergoes repairs, painting the outside as though he were still living there (not unlike Charlie Peck in Deon Taylor’s “The Intruder”). Rob Richert’s script, co-written with the director and with a story created in part by actor Jonathan Majors, tells briefly over its occupancy by Japanese who were expelled during World War 2 and sent infamously to camps.

When an elderly couple move out, Jimmie moves in as a squatter and is joined by his friend Mont, who has been taking care of his blind grandfather (Danny Glover). Among the humorous experiences is their sighting of a tour group on Segways whose tour guide (Jello Biafra) tells his patrons that the house was built in 1856, that idea disputed (as it is several times during the story) by Jimmie, who insists that his grandfather built it in 1946. Being theatrical, the film brings in a Greek chorus, if you will, of local, thuggish people who razz Jimmie and Mont mercilessly but are not people who will expect to carry out violence.

Jimmie’s “Abbott” plays vividly against his foil Mont’s “Costello,” so to speak, and together with hearty doses of humor at unexpected turns keep the movie moving through its solid two hours with nary a moment of listlessness. It helps greatly that the solid ensemble acting is punctuated by Emile Mosseri’s score, photographed by Adam Newport-Berra in a San Francisco neighborhood that would be familiar only to its residents. Like Jimmie, many of us crave a feeling of continuity with our childhoods. Given his rich friendship with Mont and his strong determination to recover a sense of belonging, Jimmie Fails gives us in the audience a resonant feeling of sympathy with his character and by extension with the ensemble of African-Americans who have become marginalized by a technocratic order.

120 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – B-
Technical – A-
Overall – B+

GOOK – movie reveiw


Samuel Goldwyn Films
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, CompuServe Film d-based on Rotten Tomatoes
Grade: B
Director:  Justin Chon
Written by: Justin Chon
Cast: Justin Chon, Simone Baker, David So, Curtiss Cook Jr., Sang Chon, Ben Munoz, Omono Okojie
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 8/8/17
Opens: August 18, 2017
Gook Movie Poster
The pejorative term “gook” was used daily by our servicemen during the Vietnam War.  Never mind that the perceived enemy was the North: even America’s allies in South Vietnam got the “gook” treatment.  Many of us, seeing how Asian-Americans hold a considerable number of high-paying jobs in Silicon Valley, and in Google where they are thirty-five percent of the work force, cannot believe there is discrimination against them in the U.S.  Asian-Americans are not considered a minority group that merit government help via affirmative action, either.  That’s why Justin Chon’s film is an eye-opener, showing that not only whites, but particularly the African-American population in this movie, living near Compton, California, are surprisingly racist, notwithstanding what should be their own empathy with another persecuted group.

As I recall, during the L.A. riots following the sickening police beating of taxi driver Rodney King and the acquittal by the officers, one of the Korean store owners shouted to a group of demonstrating Blacks threatening to smash her store window, “I’m Black!” Of course she meant that she was an oppressed minority as well, but that cut no ice with the protesters, just as the African-Americans (except for one) in “Gook” do not consider Korean-Americans to be “one of them.”

While the principal focus of “Gook” is on Eli (writer-director Justin Chon), the surprisingly good performance comes from Simone Baker as the 11-year-old orphan, who would skip school to hang out in the broken-down shoe store owned by Eli and his brother Daniel (David So) and try to stay away from her volatile brother Keith (Curtiss Cook Jr.).  For his part Daniel hopes for a better future, while ultimately Eli is so frustrated from the treatment he and his brother get from the local population that he would as soon burn down his own store rather than stick around the neighborhood.

The movie opens with Kamilla, showing her free spirit by dancing gleefully in the street, even motivating Eli and Daniel to join her in their store.  Not so free-spirited are the local thugs who in one case, out of pure racism, beat Daniel, who tries to run away on the street.  The store owner next door, Mr. Kim (Sang Chon, the director’s non-professional dad), runs a liquor store and has no use for Kamilla, accusing her of stealing some Twinkies.

Though the L.A. riots of 1991 take place a mile or so from the shoe store, they are much a part of this story, which cinematographer Ante Cheng shoots in black and white to evoke the dismal surroundings and wasted lives of the residents.  Writer-director Chon, whose 2015 film “Man Up” (about a slacker who gets his Mormon girlfriend pregnant and is helped to become a man by his stoner friend), can be dubbed “Chon Up” with this picture, a more serious, convincing, job with good ensemble performances and some insight into Asian-American culture among those who cannot aspire to work for Google or in Silicon Valley.

Unrated.  95 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Comments, readers?  Agree? Disagree? Why?

DAYVEON – movie review


Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, CompuServe Film d-based on Rotten Tomatoes
Grade: B-
Director:   Amman Abbasi
Written by: Amman Abbasi, Steven Reneau
Cast: Davin Blackmon, Dontrell Bright, Kordell “KD” Johnson, Chasity Moore, Lachion Buckingham, Marquell Manning
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 8/26/17
Opens: September 13, 2017
Dayveon Movie Photo
A recent issue of the leftist online magazine Counterpunch advises that we are not living in a post-racial society.  Never mind that white people alleviate their guilt by seeing African-Americans in top positions; Obama, Oprah, Beyoncé, and all those newscasters, white and black getting along famously, and act as though we are well beyond the days of white-only water fountains, hotels, restaurants. Black earnings are well behind those of whites on average, and perhaps the most depressing cases are African-Americans still living in the rural South, having never given up the ghost to move north into the cities  The folks in Amman Abbasi’s freshman feature are young blacks without jobs, who spend their time in the summer just chilling out, hanging, and living under the protection of gangs like the Bloods.  In Abbasi’s particular focus is the title character, Dayveon Buckingham(Devin Blackmon), coming of age with some characteristics of rural people who despite their lack of urban, so-called elite membership would hardly vote for Trump—even they even knew the names of the president and vice-president in their inward society.

Dayveon appears destined to wind up in jail, of at least the probation system, through a series of actions that are partly his own doing, but mostly a fault of his environment.  Even at this young age, he understands that there is something wrong with the way he is living, as in the opening scenes in which the boy rides his bike furiously through the tree-lined, rough roads, now and then chasing way the bees, and entertaining himself with a monologue about how stupid he finds everything in the town.  What’s more he has not gotten over his grief over the shooting death of his brother, often standing before a large colorful poster of the unfortunate victim of what is undoubtedly a senseless crime.  When he passes by members of the local Bloods, he is initiated into the membership by being beaten, showing his begrudging acceptance of the violence as it allows him to become one of them.  There are people who care for him in his own family, which is bereft of a mother,who apparently had a breakdown after the death of her son.  His sister Kim (Chasity Moore) takes care of meal preparation, and her boyfriend Bryan (Dontrell Bright) with whom he plays computer games, wants the boy to confide in him, though the relationship is mixed with some hostility by Dayveon, who considers the large man an interloper.

While there are a few melodramatic moments, such as a robbery of a convenience store in which Dayveon remains in the getaway car, this is a meditative drama which occasionally crosses the line into documentary.  The audience is presumably the small group that would go for David Gordon Green’s “George Washington,” in which George is part of a group of working class youths in North Carolina who, through a mistake, seek redemption.  Like Green’s year 2000 movie, this is a slow-mover which captures the rural south dialogue (subtitles would have been most helpful) and whose major feature is that the performers are non-professionals who, like many groups of young people seem to be all talking at the same time.

Unrated.  75 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Comments, readers?  Agree? Disagree? Why

MUDBOUND – movie review


Director:  Dee Rees
Written by: Virgil Williams, Dee Rees, based on Hillary Jordan’s novel
Cast:  Carey Mulligan, Jason Clarke, Jason Mitchell, Mary J. Blige, Rob Morgan, Jonathan Banks
Screened at: Critics’ DVD, NYC, 11/16/17
Opens: November 17, 2017
Mudbound - Movie Poster (thumbnail)  10 versions
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While our present administration and legislative bodies have moved to the right, our country in balance has moved to the left.  At first only white property owners could vote; then all white males.  Slavery was abolished, unions were formed, women got the vote, the elderly got their Social Security and then Medicare.  LBJ pushed through major civil rights legislation with a strong Democratic majority in Congress.  But racism remains the elephant in the room, brought out by an election in 2015 that allowed alt-right and outright neo-nazism to foster their “blood and soil” ideology, while the south, once solidly Democratic, had moved into Republican arms in a protest against government-backed racial equality.  Even progressives today are satirized for their hypocrisy while allegedly accepting of African-American rights, depicted superbly in one of this year’s best movies “Get Out.” During the same movie year, Dee Rees’s “Mudbound” takes us back to the 1940s, a time that the Klan did its mischief and the whole society in Deep South states like Mississippi made their resentment against racial claims heard and acted upon.

Yet even during and immediately after the war, some friendship between blacks and whites took place in the Deep South.  It’s sad, though, that during the 40’s, when a black guy and a white guy are seen together in a vehicle, all hell could break loose in a dirt-poor community such as that depicted in “Mudbound,” giving the two Mississippi families in the Delta the look of the worst years of the Great Depression.

The novel by Hillary Jordan, which is sensitively adapted by the director and co-writer Virgil Williams, focuses on two families: the white family, burdened by fissures and a black family thinking, not without justification, that there can be no peace between the races.  The film opens in 1946 with characters waist-deep in the big muddy.  Henry Mc Allan (Jason Clarke) is burying his father, Pappy (Jonathan Banks), in a wooden coffin, but when he discovers that the grave he prepared has the skull of a slave, he wanted to quit digging, saying that Pappy would hate to be buried on what the old man would consider cursed ground.  The film flashes back to the war, where we discover that Henry owns some godforsaken acreage, employing a black family headed by a preacher, Hap Jackson (Rob Morgan).  Hap’s family tries to make a go of their lives, but know that a sharecropper has no chance to make a decent living.

During a time in Memphis, Henry has been courting and soon marries a more sophisticated Laura (Carey Mulligan) He may not have realized that Laura, at thirty-one, accept Henry’s proposal not because of love but because she fears being an old maid, shunned and pitied by the people around her.  When Henry’s younger, handsomer, and more charming brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) returns from the war, he and Laura are instantly captivated with each other, while Henry needs to look out lest the kid brother steal her away.  Laura is unaware at the time that Jamie drinks heavily and, were he here in modern times fighting in Afghanistan, he would be labeled a vet with post-traumatic stress disorder given his regular, terror-stricken memories of the fighting. (There are some war scenes, but the actual air battles are given minimal attention, as this is not a war movie but rather a nuanced look at the families.)  When Ronsel Jackson (Jason Mitchell) comes home a sergeant who has had close calls with death in Europe, he is disgusted that the whites in the town whose freedom he defended treat him without deference to the man’s combat in Germany.

There is little melodrama, which makes the mayhem near the closing of the tale that much more electrifying.  Jamie might be considered the anchor of the movie, given both his heroism and his flaws.  Our chief interest throughout is the friendship that slowly emerges between Jamie and Ronsel, in which the black sergeant, at first holding back, relaxes and jokes with Jamie, a white person—something he never expected to occur.  One might consider that the war which both fought, in segregated units, woke Jamie up to the absurdity of racism, despite his inheritance of his father’s blatant anti-black feelings that would commit the old man from violence.

Dee Rees is already an experienced hand at directing, having scored with her first movie, “Pariah,” in 2009.  Her compassion is evident then as well, with her focus on a Brooklyn teen with conflicting identities struggling for sexual expression.  Then, as in “Mudbound,” Rees plays the humanity of two of the characters against the humiliating inequalities of society, and does it as a slow burn exploding in a melodramatic conclusion.

Rated R.  132 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B
Acting – B+
Technical – B+
Overall – B+

DRIVING WHILE BLACK – movie review


    Artist Rights Distribution
    Director:  Paul Sapiano
    Screenwriter:  Dominique Purdy, Paul Sapiano
    Cast:  Dominique Purdy, Sheila Tejada, John Mead
    Screened at: Critics link, NYC,
    Opens: February 1, 2018
    Driving While Black poster
    The best way to convince an audience of your political reviews is not to bop them over the head in your desire to proselytize.  People resist heavy-handed treatment, just as police get their dander up when suspects challenge their authority.  The best film to hit home on that score last year, “Get Out,” is perhaps the best movie of 2017 because it finds much to criticize with one large segment—the progressives, or the liberals as they used to be called—who think that they have no racism in their DNA but are effectively exposed as hypocrites.

    “Driving While Black” is itself a great title because like the Paul Sapiano’s film, it uses wordplay to impress its target audience.  Director Sapiano, whose “The Boys Guide to Getting Down” in 2011 deals with sex, drugs and bad behavior, is in his métier with this latest contribution, as he hones in on a rough section of Los Angeles whose police, whether white or black, can sometimes be as much of a problem as the gangs.  The comedy serves both to entertain and to caution those of us who think that the police can do no wrong given the extent of the criminal element. It is often flat-out hilarious.  Credit Dominique Purdy, both the principal actor and co-writer, for a movie that will inevitably be well received in early 2018.

    Dmitri (Dominique Purdy) is a typical young and hip black man who has the ghetto look—the hoodie, the baseball cap, the wtf attitude.  He does not have a threatening look, though the cops would disagree, he means well in his attempt to get a job as a Hollywood tour guide, and even has an artistic bent, using hydrochloric acid, coat hangers and a blow torch for his projects. He smokes weed (not a biggie except to the cops) and hangs out with people whose attitude toward the men and women in blue often gets them and Dmitri in trouble.

    Sapiano takes us on Dimitri’s pizza rounds and the hanging out episodes in Dimitri’s Ford Focus.  Scenes that stand out include one in which the person to whom he is to deliver pizza is under arrest in the police vehicle as the arresting officers open the box and take their free slices. They love the pepperoni, and even feed the handcuffed suspect a bite.

    The tension arises when Dimitri, on the way to an interview that would improve his life, is stopped, lined up, and insulted by police such as Officer McVitie (Peter Cilella), who is particularly racist as he received a vicious beating years back by five men.  He is certain that Officer Borty-Lio (Sheila Tejada), the only really good cop, was promoted to sergeant over the men with more experience because of affirmative action.

    The picture claims 32 festival wins and is most deserving of your time.

    Rated R.  92 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

    Story – B+
    Acting – A-
    Technical – B+
    Overall – B+

CROWN HEIGHTS – movie review


Amazon Studios
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

Crown Heights movie poster (2017) picture MOV_2neqndfh shadow

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+