Review: CROWN HEIGHTS (2017) 'the true story of Colin Warner who served 20 years for a crime he didn't commit'


Joseph Friar

By Joseph Friar
Sept. 9, 2017 at 7:13 p.m.


Lakeith Stanfield, Nnamdi Asomugha, Natalie Paul, Amari Cheatom, Skylan Brooks, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Nestor Carbonell, Zach Grenier, Bill Camp

Directed by Matt Ruskin 

Lakeith Stanfield from the films Short Term 12, Get Out and the television show Atlanta plays wrongfully convicted Colin Warner who served 20 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit.  “Crown Heights” is based on a true story that was broadcast on the NPR radio show This American Life.  Warner and his best friend Carl King (played by Nnamdi Asomugha) told their story to 2.2 million radio listeners including director Matt Ruskin who was captivated by their determination to seek justice.  The film doesn’t fully capture the emotional depth of the story but it does feature outstanding performances by Stanfield and Asomugha. 

Back in April of 1980 the Trinidad born Colin Warner was only 18-years old.  He wasn’t a saint but he also wasn’t a murderer.  Colin had a record and mugshot after being locked up for minor offenses including auto theft.  The Crown Heights resident was fingered for the murder of a 16-year old in Flatbush after an eyewitness was coerced by detectives to pick a suspect from tons of mugshots.  

Colin was convicted and sent to prison where he remained for two decades all while claiming his innocence.  Ruskin uses time stamps and clips of Presidents Reagan, Bush, and Clinton to illustrate the years Warner spent incarcerated.  During that time Warner faced denied parole hearings, incompetent lawyers, and a stint in solitary, all of which are depicted in the film.  

“Crown Heights” is the follow-up to Ruskin’s debut feature, the 2006 documentary The Hip Hop Project, and in many ways the director is still in documentary mode.  There is an emotional detachment from the injustices served up in the film as if time is quietly passing by while Warner continues to get the shaft.  The audience isn’t driven to feel the anger and frustration that Warner surely felt, instead time moves forward methodically.  

The supporting cast features good performances by Natalie Paul as Warner’s girlfriend Antoinette, who marries Warner while he’s imprisoned, and great character actor Bill Camp as the lawyer who helped free Warner.  Carl went to work for the lawyer just to help his best friend and Ruskin does a good job of illustrating Carl’s determination to get Warner exonerated.   

“Crown Heights” tells the fascinating story of a broken system, shoddy policework, and an innocent man who refused to give up his fight for freedom.  Strong performances by Stanfield and Asomugha give the film strength. 

(3 stars) 

Now showing in Houston at AMC Gulf Pointe 30, AMC First Colony, AMC Willowbrook 24, and AMC Loews Fountains 18.  In Austin at Regal Arbor 8 @ Great Hills.          



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