Crown Heights, Matt Ruskin's biopic of Colin Warner, solemnly and ably exposes the outrages of a flawed criminal justice system. But outside of a few interesting wrinkles, it's an unremarkable exercise in a cinematic trope, the "wrong man" story, which dates back at least to Hitchcock's The Wrong Man.
Warner (Lakeith Stanfield) was an eighteen-year-old Trinidadian immigrant and two-bit car thief in the Brooklyn neighborhood of the title. In 1980, he was arrested and later convicted for his involvement with a murder he didn't commit. Ruskin first learned about the story from This American Life, and he places Warner's Kafkaesque odyssey through the legal system against the political backdrop of the time, from presidential crackdown-on-crime efforts to New York governor George Pataki's call to end parole for all felons.
Much of the film's first half is given to a common refrain of bad cops, bad prosecutors, and bad prisons. Then the focus shifts to Warner's best friend, Carl "KC" King (former NFL star Nnamdi Asomugha), and his dogged two-decade pursuit to prove Warner's innocence. King's dedication is inspiring, but Ruskin's presentation is a plodding procedural. Narrative detours like Warner's romance with Antoinette (Natalie Paul), an old friend from the neighborhood, aren't fleshed out; we know little about these characters beyond their functions in the plot.
Crown Heights' sharpest critique is saved for the system itself. There are eye-opening explanations of the plea-bargain process and the urgent need for competent representation. After Warner's well-meaning trial lawyer proves ineffective in the face of complex litigation, Warner's friends spend years saving money to retain a slick-talking appellate attorney, only to see thousands of dollars evaporate in a single ill-prepared hearing. But most of the earnest exegesis feels like plowed ground.