More or less a riff on Alfred Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man, Matt Ruskin’s Crown Heights implores its viewers to consider the sociopolitical context wherein a black man from Brooklyn is left to biodegrade in prison for over two decades for a crime he didn’t commit. Inspired by an episode of This American Life, Crown Heights details the wrongful murder conviction of Colin Warner (Lakeith Stanfield) and his perpetual attempts to appeal the conviction, which are frequently thwarted by incompetent council or a judicial system that refuses to admit culpability. This sort of film, involving a wrongfully accused citizen sentenced to unendurable denials of humanity, isn’t exactly a novelty but it’s to Ruskin’s credit that he manages to compose a fairly nuanced portrait out of familiar (though trite) components.
The most striking quality of Crown Heights is how it contextualizes Warner’s conviction within a broader American political sphere. Beginning its narrative in April of 1980, the plodding legal process that keeps Warner incarcerated for two years without a trial is juxtaposed with images of Ronald Reagan belting off a mantra idealizing law and order. Years pile and the same rhetoric is regurgitated through a new conservative loudspeaker in George H.W. Bush, where flaccid promises engineered to promote blasé feelings of comfort are made at the expense of disenfranchised communities. This is all capped off by Clinton’s 1994 Crime Bill that more or less robbed our society’s most penurious members of any measure of agency. In contrasting Warner’s incarceration within a broader political reality, Ruskin imbues the material with a tactile sense of urgency.
This urgency is also highlighted through Ruskin’s ephemeral formal approach, which bares a striking resemblance to Julian Schnabel’s unconventional prison film The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. While not as successful, Ruskin and cinematographer Ben Kutchin emphasizes Warner’s prison life as a state of mind, where interludes of his free life are shot in fleeting, warm hues against the grays of his cell. Kutchin’s visual approach, however, becomes bogged down in unmercifully blotted imagery that sacrifices clarity for gloom.
Whereas Ruskin’s approach to externalizing Warner’s prison life through his weathering of internal demons is keenly realized, it’s Crown Heights’ ancillary narrative involving Warner’s best friend KC (Nnamdi Asomugha) that’s so disappointingly conventional. Partly channeling the obsessive self-destructive spirit of Jake Gyllenhaal in Zodiac, Ruskin seems unsure of what to do with the character beyond being an observational specter to Warner’s suffering. Ruskin’s obligation to KC’s narrative, which touches upon some rather vapid emotional beats to move along, derails the film’s second half by distilling the ephemeral qualities of the filmmaking in favor of meaningless histrionic gestures.
What we have in Crown Heights is a film that burrows into the soulful and heart-wrenching circumstances behind a man’s wrongful incarceration, his pained attempts to survive prison-life, and the orbiting figures that come to his aid. It’s that final part, involving the coterie of individuals who made Warner’s (spoiler-alert) eventual release, that’s so formally and dramatically inert. At once so urgent, Crown Heights dismayingly plods to its conclusion, where the weight and intrinsic importance of its material is rendered into a saccharine goop of inconsequence. I wish I got more out of this film. Especially since it suggested something more than what it became.