The busiest actor at Sundance this year was unquestionably Lakeith Stanfield, with the Atlanta actor turning up in a handful of movies, mostly in supporting roles. But the one that finds him taking the spotlight is Crown Heights, a based-in-truth account of Colin Warner, a black man who found himself the victim of a broken criminal justice system and incarcerated for 20 years over a crime he didn't commit. It's Stanfield's moment to shine, and the soulful, bittersweet performance he gives is the highlight in a frustratingly thin film that never rises up to his level.
It takes time growing used to the wild dreadlocks and Trinidadian accent Stanfield sports as Warner, but his full commitment to playing the legal hero makes it a quick transition. Beginning in the early 1980s, Warner is a petty thief in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, stealing TVs and other items for a quick payout. Like everybody else, Warner is poor and just trying to get by, and it's especially difficult for immigrants like himself. He's got a network of friends, though, and people he cares about like Antoinette (Natalie Paul), who he's long had a crush on; and his hard-working pal Carl King (former All-Pro NFL cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha). There's a community around Warner that he seems to be a part of but not fully appreciative of, but by the end of the movie he definitely will be.
In the wrong place at the wrong time, Warner is picked up by the cops and railroaded into the system on a murder case. Misidentified by a witness, he is charged with 15 years to life despite while the actual killer is convicted and serves practically nothing. What follows is years of appeals that go unheard, while Warner struggles to maintain his humanity. The film's best moments find Stanfield capturing Warner's slow transformation from violent inmate eventually forced into solitary confinement, to a learned man who spends his bettering the lives of other prisoners. Aided by some beautiful cinematography the captures the brief moments of serenity Warner finds in all of the injustice around him.
There's a poetic quality to Warner's transformation behind bars that isn't mirrored in the blandly-depicted events elsewhere. Too much time is stolen away from Warner (ironically enough) and given to King's exploits as he risks his family, his job, and standing in the community to get Warner out of jail. Asomugha isn't bad by any stretch but he lacks screen presence, and his reserved demeanor borders on sleepy. A lack of focus leads to a romantic subplot that never quite fits with the overall narrative, and cameos by Stanfield's Atlanta co-star Brian Tyree Henry and The Wire's Gbenga Akinnagbe leave much to be desired.
No President ever got elected by promising to be weak on crime, and Crown Heights acknowledges how aggressively tough crime laws have an inordinate impact on people just like Warner. The passage of time, captured cleverly in archival footage of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton all promising to keep so-called violent offenders locked away, only serves to remind us how little has changed. There are thousands of Colin Warners out there whose lives have been shattered by a rigged justice system, and maybe Crown Heights can provide them hope it won't be that way forever.
Rating: 3 out of 5