Lakeith Stanfield is evolving into one of our best up-and-coming actors. Following his breakout role in Short Term 12, he’s continued to shine in films like Straight Outta Compton, Selma, and Get Out. He’s also a regular scene-stealer on Donald Glover’s Atlanta. Stanfield takes center stage in Crown Heights and his performance is largely the reason why the movie works. It’s a raw, emotional, and honest portrayal that conjures empathy from start to finish. The film only makes me more excited to see what Stanfield will do next, as long as it’s not a sequel to Death Note.
In this true story, Stanfield plays Colin Warner, a young African American man that’s wrongfully accused of murder. Colin spends years behind bars before the case goes to trial. Even after the real murderer is caught, the jury still finds Colin guilty and the judge reluctantly sentences him to 15 years to life. Although the legal system is against Colin, he receives unwavering support from his best friend Carl, played by cornerback turned actor Nnamdi Asomugha. Carl eventually grows tired of watching Colin’s lawyers drop the ball, prompting him to learn more about the legal system. He manages to attract a couple attorneys named William and Shirley Robedee (Bill Camp, Sarah Goldberg), who believe Colin might have a shot at getting out.
At only 94 minutes, writer/director wisely keeps his movie tight. A lesser filmmaker likely would’ve dwelled too much on the brutality Colin faced behind bars, delivering a lot of scenes that solely exist for shock value. Ruskin gives us just enough, however, without ever resorting to cheap shots. The scenes that take place outside of prison are equally intriguing, as Carl investigates the case himself. This is a movie largely about taking the law into your own hands, but not in a vigilante, action hero kind of way. Every individual feels authentic and Ruskin doesn’t waste a second of runtime.
With that said, there are a few areas that could’ve used a bit more development. During his incarceration, Colin grows closer to a woman named Antoinette (Natalie Paul), who dedicates her life to getting him out. Their romance comes off as rushed, though, and there isn’t really a ton to Antoinette outside of being the supportive love interest. Paul turns in an effective performance and she does have a few nice moments with Stanfield. The audience never comes to care about their relationship like they should, however.
What we do care about is if Colin will ever wake up outside of a prison cell again. Whether you already know this story or not, it shouldn’t be hard to figure out how this film will ultimately end. Regardless, Crown Heights remains a timely drama in an age overrun with police brutality and racial profiling. It reminds us that the American justice system is still far from perfect. Studies show that an estimated 120,000 people are wrongfully incarcerated in the US. Even if it only has a small impact, Crown Heights will have done its job if it resonates with at least one lawyer, judge, or juror that’ll decide the outside of a person’s life.