The courtroom drama has long been staple of American cinema. There is something inherently stirring out watching plucky citizens campaigning righteously against forces of evil arrayed against them. These films renew our belief in our juridicial process, demonstrating how our system is well-formed for working justice in our country.
Crown Heights is the flip-side of that coin. It demonstrates how our system fails to work justice for people of color like immigrant from Trinidad Colin Warner who was falsely convicted of murder in 1981 and sentenced to fifteen years to life in federal prison. Because of Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and Pataki-era “law and order” reforms, Warner is denied parole after serving fifteen years and as little hope of every walking free again. His little hope comes in the form of his friend, Carl King. Carl spends over two decades fighting the system for Warner’s vindication.
Crown Heights is certainly timely, as it focused on the ways the system is bent against Black men like Warner. It’s infuriating to watch injustice be done to Warner time and time again. It’s infuriating on a moral level, but it’s also maddening on a cinematic level, because the film doesn’t explain why, for instance, it’s legal for two men to be tried together for a crime. Had Warner been given his own trial, he’d likely have been declared “not guilty.” For a movie about how a small community of caring Americans learns to work a broken system to their favor, the movie spend any time showing us how the system does and doesn’t work. (Ava DuVernay’s remarkable The 13th should be a required double-bill with this film.)
Crown Heights is satisfied to be emotionally bolstering. It does hit those emotional beats well. Lakieth Stanfield is a mesmerizing actor. Without saying much, he communicates all Warner’s nobility and aggravation. In the center of the film, Warner is allowed to experience love, and a brief shot of Stanfield almost crying on his lover’s shoulder will stay with me all year. Nnamdi Asomugha is equally compelling as Carl King. I would have enjoyed an entire movie focused solely on him and his endeavor to get his friend set free.
For certain our system isn’t perfect, and racism comes in both aggressive and non-aggressive forms. The system itself was against Warner because he was black, because he had been arrested before, and because he maintained his innocence (negating his ability to “reform” and earn parole). The system needs to be fixed, but as long as we let fear rule instead of love, we’ll keep erring the side of imprisoning people (or worse, instructing the state to murder them) and innocent people like Warner will continue to be the collateral damage to our fear.”Fear not!” is the Biblical command we most need to heed.