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“Crown Heights” most earnest film of the year

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Winner of the prestigious Audience Award for best dramatic film at Sundance, “Crown Heights” is the most earnest film of the year, if not one of the best.

Written and directed by Matt Ruskin (“The Hip Hop Project,” “Booster”), this heart-wrenching drama is based on the true story of Colin Warner, who was wrongfully convicted of second-degree murder. Anyone who sees this depiction of a little-known yet monumental travesty may fluctuate between outrage and sorrow.

There is no emotional disconnect; this is a film about a human rights violation at its most basic form, disguised under the banner of the oft-challenged U.S. legal and penal systems.

The film begins in 1980, a year which saw newly elected President Ronald Reagan promising a return to swift justice for criminals. On a normal day in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn, Mario Hamilton is shot and killed in the middle of the street.

In nearby Crown Heights,18-year-old Colin Warner (Lakeith Stanfield) leaves his job as a mechanic, steals a car for chop money (no one said he was an angel), picks up a television set for his mother (Adriane Lenox of “The Path”) from the local pawn shop, and then is inexplicably arrested, not for car theft, as he surmises, but for Hamilton’s murder.

What appears to be a case of mistaken identity turns into an arrest with political motivation at its core. As police are pressured by state and federal government to close as many cases as possible, one very unreliable witness is all it takes to finger Warner from a mugshot in a police station, in lieu of evidence or motive. In a money-saving maneuver, Warner was tried along with Anthony Gibson (Luke Forbes), the juvenile who did kill Mario. This sham of a trial resulted in both men being convicted of second-degree murder, with Warner receiving a sentence of 15 years to life.

Sadly, Warner knew neither Hamilton, Gibson or witness Clarence Lewis (Skylan Brooks), the latter of whom actually recanted during trial, in spite of being blackmailed by the D.A.’s office.

As the years pass and Warner maintains his innocence, his best friend Carl ‘KC’ King (NFL great-turned-actor Nnamdi Asomugha) displays a lesson in true love, devoting his entire life to proving Warner’s innocence.

Ruskin’s film employs foreshadowing, intercut with flashbacks of a much happier time in Warner’s life, particularly when he and his father ran along the shores of his native Trinidad.

While his directing style hasn’t quite reached its peak yet, I see influences of Malick-infused realism creeping in. It elevates the source material with additional (albeit artificial) layers of poignancy. But this is not strictly the story of Colin Warner’s experience of a miscarriage of justice; Carl King is just as instrumental to this film’s account.

These circumstances make for a two-fold tragedy – two men cut down in the primes of their lives, and both incarcerated – with King serving a concurrent sentence of unadulterated devotion to his friend. At one point, Warner asks King why he continues to fight.  King simply replies, “It could have been me.”

Although the incident that plunged an innocent man’s life into a living nightmare occurred 37 years ago, there is no timelier era than the present to bring his story to life. When I see the horrific events that unfolded in Charlottesville, I think of the four Caucasian prison guards who mercilessly beat Warner and the facade of being called “purveyors of justice.” Racism was Warner’s judge, jury and symbolic executioner.

Hatred for his skin color, his dreadlocks and his unfulfilled dreams permeated a legal system that was unwilling to recognize its own mistakes, while a man was unwilling to admit guilt for a crime he didn’t commit. Ironically, had he done so, Warner likely would have been granted parole after 15 years. Being a man of integrity, this would have merely changed his imprisonment from a maximum-security facility to one of his own conscience.

***1/2 (three-and-a-half-out-of-four stars)

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“Crown Heights” most earnest film of the year