“Crown Heights”

            Based on a true story, “Crown Heights” is tough to watch because this is about injustice.  It's done to one man, Colin Warner (Lakeith Stanfield), but what's so depressing is that we all realize this isn't the first time, nor will it be the only time.

            Colin Warner is a teenage petty thief in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn.  Steal a car, sell it at the local “chop shop.”  So it's not like he's a freshman on academic scholarship at NYU.  He is 18 years old, an immigrant (from Trinidad), he hasn't finished high school, he's already a small-time crook, and he doesn't have much in the way of family to look out for him, which is why he was such an easy target for a set-up.

            It seems there was a murder in his neighborhood, and the cops were so anxious to get a conviction that they badgered a 15-year-old, in trouble for an armed robbery, to point to Colin Warner as the driver of the getaway car in a drive-by shooting.  Turns out it wasn't a drive-by at all; the assailant was on foot.  Turns out the 15-year-old kid didn't even know Colin Warner, he just wanted a plea deal for himself, and would say anything the cops told him to say.  Colin Warner is tried, together with the “real” killer, who won't admit anything in hopes that they'll let him go.  He doesn't care what happens to Colin Warner.  And apparently neither does anybody else.  He gets 15 years to life.

            Now that he's wrongly convicted, Colin Warner is his own worst enemy.  He resents being in prison, because he feel he doesn't belong there.  He rankles at any perceived slight, either from a guard or a fellow inmate.  His quick-tempered scrapes get him put in solitary confinement as punishment.

            Meanwhile, Colin's only real friend, Carl “KC” King (former NFL All-Pro Nnamdi Asomugha), tries to raise money for Colin's bail (not happening), and then Colin's appeal (denied).  In one of KC's many neighborhood fund-raising solicitations for his friend's defense fund, he runs into Antoinette (Natalie Paul), who remembers Colin fondly, and now that she's back from her military service, decides to go with KC to visit Colin.  The sparks fly, and now Colin has even more incentive to get out, because Antoinette's affection for Colin blossoms into a jailhouse romance, complete a hasty civil ceremony, and with occasional awkward conjugal visits.

            Finally, KC gets another appeal arranged, but runs into some unexpected attorney incompetence, so Colin remains in jail until his first parole hearing, after 15 years.  He is denied, because he refuses to admit remorse for his crime, because he's still maintaining that he didn't commit it in the first place.

            Finally, in his second job as a process server, KC finds an attorney who will pay some attention to the case, and after some detective work of his own, KC finally finds a witness who will testify that Colin had nothing to do with the crime.  KC also wises up and gets the media involved, which embarrasses the DA's office enough to finally move with the defense to drop the charges.  At last, after 21 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit, Colin Warner is a free man.

            It's not as if anyone ever apologizes to Colin Warner.  They certainly can't hand him back the prime years of his life.  But by this time, we, the viewers, are glad to see a grievous wrong righted, even if tragically postponed, even if in a frustratingly flawed system.  We can only hope that outside the bars, Colin Warner's exhiliration will exceed his resentment.

 

Questions for Discussion:

1)                  Have you ever been unjustly accused?  What was your response?

2)                  Do you know anyone who has served time in prison?  How did that experience affect them?

3)                  Who has stuck by you during the hard times?  Whom have you stuck by?

 

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association