Some stories are compelling enough to tell without embellishment. A simple recounting of the facts, carefully observed portraits of those involved and the trials life and “the system” hand our hero is enough.
And when those stories are filmed in that way we call them “documentaries.”
Filmmaker Matt Ruskin’s “Crown Heights” flirts with documentary realism at it painstakingly relates what happened to Colin Warner, a teen from Trinidad thrown in jail for a murder he did not commit. Warner, living in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, was trapped in a justice system that refused to acknowledge mistakes, which devoured him and vast sums of money with legal catch-22s as loyal friends and family spent decades and all the money they could raise trying to free him.
Warner’s story, told in a “This American Life” radio segment which inspired the film, is a Kafka-esque nightmare of legalese, defiance and persistence. The movie of it is a murky affair, a confusing revolving-cast of witnesses, perpetrators, lawyers, cops and relatives. But thanks to a quietly riveting performance by Lakeith Stanfield of “Get Out” and TV’s “Atlanta,” we start to share Warner’s frustration and utter despair at what his plight has done to him and his family.
Warner was a dreadlocked teen in 1980 New York, devoted to his mother in New York and his grandma back in Trinidad, studying car repair in high school with his best friend, “KC,” Carl King (Nnamdi Asomugha).
But he’s in the system and on the cops’ radar. He’s shown stealing a car, as if he’s done it before — and wrecking it, because he’s 18 and not an accomplished driver or a smart one. The real Warner was on probation for a switchblade possession conviction at the time of his arrest for murder. So the police know him by name and he doesn’t seem all that shocked to be picked up with his mother’s TV (it had just been repaired) in his hands.
What stuns him is what they take him in for. He’s been identified as a murder suspect. No, he doesn’t know any of the people involved in what obviously seems a revenge shooting. But he’s booked, locked-up and ground down in jail as he awaits trial (no bail), for the police and the D.A. (Josh Pais) to realize they’ve made a mistake, for the actual shooter to admit he’s never met him. He waits in vain.
Ruskin ably sets the film within its times — footage of Presidents Reagan, Bush Sr. and Clinton making speeches promising to “get tough” on crime by creating “three strikes” laws, “mandatory sentences” and the like. That helps turn policing into a “results” oriented mad-rush to arrest, with district attorneys only concerned with convictions.
We see KC go door to door, fund-raising to pay for an appeal, never losing faith but sorely testing his marriage (Marsha Stephanie Blake plays Briana, his wife) and patience.
And we get to know Antoinette (Natalie Paul), a girl when Colin first flirted with her, a woman moved by compassion and an unshakable belief that this guy she knew as a teen wasn’t capable of murder.
But that’s a shortcoming of Ruskin’s film, that “get to know” idea. Relationships aren’t explained or properly motivated. Trinidadians’ tendency to refer to close friends as “brethren” may have you believing KC and Colin are related.
Ruskin loses himself in documenting the tracking each twist and turn in the case, and the passage of time, as if the simple horror of this man’s story and the years it took for his story to get out was enough. It just isn’t.
That’s only corrected in a conventional but still gripping third act, when that one lawyer (the omnipresent character actor Bill Camp) takes a look at the case and digs in for a dogged pursuit of justice.
Names were changed to protect the actually guilty and the murder victim, making it difficult to know just how much of the story has been altered for a film that plays as documentary-real. And the presence of Camp, of TV’s laborious but excellent murder investigation series “The Night Of,” points to the biggest hurdle facing Ruskin.
With so much film and TV devoted to police procedurals, the bar is pretty high for you if that’s the genre the story you want to tell falls in. “Crown Heights” doesn’t raise that bar. It plods. It shortchanges characters and back-stories.
We see Warner cope with the brutality of prison, and finally turn violent himself, another “catch-22” when it comes to his parole hearings. We see a relationship develop, abruptly, with Antoinette.
The performances are studied and largely internalized, but clarity is lacking and a neat through-line is lost in the myriad sidebars about this missing witness being stalked, that one discredited — eventually.
Warner’s story is cautionary and representative of a system that wasn’t working well, only to have its failings exacerbated by politics and law enforcement pushed into taking shortcuts to get results.
But as righteous as it is, “Crown Heights” fritters away goodwill normally built by intimate, revealing performances, sacrificing clarity for under-explained bulk examples of injustice, and exhausting its sense of outrage in the process.
MPAA Rating: R, violence, nudity, sexual situations
Cast: Lakeith Stanfield, Natalie Paul, Nnamdi Asomugha
Credits:Written an directed by Matt Ruskin. An Amazon Studios/ release.Bill Camp
Running time: 1:40