Lakeith Stanfield in Crown Heights (IFC Films)

This timely film about institutional racism and criminal justice depicts the true story of how a Brooklyn teenager named Colin Warner, wrongfully convicted of second degree murder, languished in an upstate New York prison for 20 years. Despite the grave injustice depicted, there is a hopeful, positive message at the core of the film, since Colin was eventually set free, after the state was forced to admit it made a terrible mistake. Balancing insight into the arcana of the appellate process and the maddeningly slow wheels of justice with emotional and psychological insight, Crown Heights is a stirring legal drama that will outrage and inspire in equal measure.

Colin (Lakeith Stanfield) is a wiry West Indian teenager living in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn in 1980. He lives an exciting life, staying out late chasing girls and getting into the kind of mischief that is universal for teenagers, but he also respects his strict, watchful grandmother’s requests and gets chastised for sneaking in late at night. In early scenes, Colin hangs out in its his vibrant neighborhood, where conversations about identity and Marcus Garvey float casually around along with jokes and workplace banter in a local auto shop.

But barely 10 minutes into the film, Colin is arrested on charges of second-degree murder. A 14-year-old boy witnessed a shooting in Flatbush and is pressured into identifying someone, anyone, from a book of mug shots. Out of a desire to give the bullying homicide detectives what they want, and to get them off his back, the kid randomly points to a photo that happens to be of Colin. This is all the evidence that the state ever has against Colin.

The initial courtroom drama of Colin’s conviction is riveting and detailed, but the bulk of the story revolves around Colin’s best friend, Carl King (Nnamdi Asomugha), the one person who never gives up on Colin’s case. Even Colin himself, after year after year of struggling against the justice system to no avail, gives into despair, yet Carl cannot imagine allowing such a stark injustice to endure. Just as Colin deteriorates over the years, Carl sacrifices his own happiness in various ways by being so committed (perhaps even obsessed) to overturning Colin’s bogus conviction. Asomugha, a producer on the project as well as a former NFL star, is excellent as Carl, exuding the quiet, steady intensity that would be required to spend two decades pouring over legal minutiae and tracking down leads, however miniscule they may be.

In its convincing, realistic portrayal of how the state can all too easily crush you if you get in its way, even if you’ve done nothing wrong, Crown Heights evokes 2014’s Leviathan, a Russian film about how bureaucrats and administrators care nothing for truth or justice and function only to steer the massive, uncaring ship of state along the same route it has always trod. The details and idiosyncrasies of the Russian functionaries are different than those of the New York officials, but the effect of both is the same—using the fearsome power of the state to destroy anyone unlucky enough to be caught in its path.

Crown Heights also brings to mind 2016’s I, Daniel Blake, a drama about a 59-year-old widowed British carpenter who, after suffering a heart attack, struggles mightily with the labyrinthine, uncaring social support system, finding it more stressful to secure benefits than the initial heart attack. In all of these dramas, institutions that are meant to protect its citizens from injustice can all too easily deny citizens’ basic humanity.

But the most obvious comparison to make when discussing Crown Heights is last summer’s smash hit HBO miniseries The Night Of, about a wrongfully accused Muslim college kid who gets railroaded on a bogus murder charge and spends a year in New York City’s local torture dungeon, Rikers Island. In both, the slow wheels of justice entrench initial errors, and criminality—based on shoddy, unethical detective work—can become inescapable pits. The connection between the two is probably intentional, especially given the inclusion of Bill Camp, who played Detective Box in The Night Of, as a canny attorney who, because of Carl’s urging, takes on Colin’s case.

A true story that is equal parts infuriating and hopeful, Crown Heights memorably dramatizes the power of friendship, dedication, and hope.

Written and Directed by Matt Ruskin
Released by Amazon Studios/IFC Films
USA. 99 min. Rated R
With Lakeith Stanfield, Nnamdi Asomugha, Natalie Paul, Bill Camp, Nestor Carbonell, and Amari Cheatom