In 1980, Colin Warner was sentenced to life in prison for a murder he didn’t commit. His friend Carl “KC” King did everything in his power to free Warner—up to and including amateur police work and becoming a legal courier to learn about the legal system. Warner and King’s story is fascinating and speaks volumes on race, the flaws of the American criminal justice system, the insidious ubiquity of coerced confessions, and the challenge of prosecuting murder cases without an abundance of evidence.
As a dramatized version of these events, Crown Heights glosses over most of this.
Crown Heights is based on an excellent episode of This American Life dedicated to Warner’s case, which includes interviews that present both King and Warner as determined, idiosyncratic characters attempting to exercise autonomy and enact justice within a system stacked against them. Though Lakeith Stanfield and Nnamdi Asomugha put in strong performances as Warner and King, this complexity is lost in Crown Heights: Here Warner is merely a victim, King simply a savior.
Other potential sources of dramatic tension are similarly jettisoned: Crown Heights’ women characters are reduced to a slight, long-suffering support team for the men. One of the real-life lawyers who tried to appeal Warner’s case was none other than the iconoclastic William Kunstler; he does not appear in the film. While the horrors of mass incarceration are shown early on, the fact Warner went to Rikers Island isn’t explicitly addressed, despite that prison’s documented history of abuse.
These things matter—the best storytelling accesses the universal through the personal and director Matt Ruskin’s depersonalized approach to this story means he can’t do it justice. I wish Crown Heights had been made by Ryan Coogler or Ava DuVernay, whose work examines inequity with specificity and verve. You should watch their movies instead of this one. Or listen to that This American Life. It’s episode 282.