Matt Ruskin adapted his second fiction feature from an episode of the weekly public radio show This American Life. The film is grueling but never labored, its visual harshness and arduous narrative attributable to the soul-wracking 21 years Colin (sometimes “Collin”) Warner spent in prison for a murder he didn’t commit.
It makes for salutary viewing following Charlottesville’s days of disgrace. The snuffing out of Colin’s prime during his incarceration aligns with the foul sentiments of the white supremacist thugs interviewed for a CNN news report on August 16.
A quiet, dreadlocked 18-year-old played with a low simmer by the excellent Keith Stanfield (Short Term 12), Colin was wrongfully convicted of the street murder of 16-year-old Mario Hamilton outside Erasmus High School on Flatbush Avenue in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, in 1980.
Hamilton had been shot in the back of the neck by Norman Simmons, a minor at the time of the killing. He was convicted alongside Colin but paroled after nine years. Simmons eventually came forward to help exonerate Colin.
Crown Heights begins with a shot of teenage girls jumping rope round the corner from the school. The moment could have come from Spike Lee’s Crooklyn, except Ruskin’s mise-en-scène is less poetic than Lee’s. There’s a loud gunshot, fear, confusion—but Simmons’ matter-of-fact killing of Hamilton, himself the victim of mistaken identity, isn’t shown until late in the movie.
Then it appears at the climax of the investigation conducted by Colin’s devoted friend Carl King (Nnamdi Asomugha), who had become a process-server and enlisted the help of his white lawyer boss (Bill Camp). King’s marriage and finances were casualties of his campaign to see his friend released.
Between the jump-rope scene and the murder, Ruskin unspools Warner’s life as an apprentice car mechanic living with his mom, his hesitant courting of a local girl, Antoinette (Natalie Paul), his arrest for the murder after crashing a stolen car, his and Simmons’ trial—based on false testimony coerced from a frightened Haitian kid—and the long years in stir.
Despite a beating from white guards—one a neo-Nazi skinhead type—and solitary confinement, Colin doesn’t crack in prison. He also refuses to show remorse for a crime he didn’t commit and is refused parole by the plainly bigoted adjudicators.
Colin almost throws in the towel at this point, telling Antoinette and Carl to stop visiting him. Instead, they redouble their efforts to overturn his sentence. Carl takes over as the film’s egoless protagonist, the modest, indefatigable guy who drives the story forward.
Breaks the spell
Shot in a low-fi rather than realist style, Crown Heights isn’t a docudrama like The Murder of Stephen Lawrence (1999), an analogous Paul Greengrass film about a British Caribbean woman relentlessly campaigning for justice. (Doreen Lawrence, whose 18-year-old son Stephen was the victim of a racist killing by white youths, finally got convictions for the perpetrators after uncovering institutional racism in London’s Metropolitan Police.) Ruskin’s use of an obtrusive rapid rewind device that introduces flashbacks awkwardly breaks the spell a few times, but Ruskin commendably avoids lyricizing or sentimentalizing the material.
This is a timely film about institutionalized racism in America, and related issues of ghettoization and violence within black communities. It won’t get as much fanfare as Moonlight, but it needs to be seen.
Crown Heights is currently on release in the US.