This review previously ran on February 1st as part of the Sundance Film Festival
For years, podcasts such as ‘This American Life’ have reinvigorated audio-based storytelling as a vital medium for captivating audiences.
Inevitably, a few stories stand out as worthy of adapting into movies, and this year at Sundance, Crown Heights enters this foray.
Based on a true story that unfortunately feels more commonplace than it should, the film covers the life journey of Colin Warner (Lakeith Stanfield), a young immigrant from Trinidad who, in 1980, was arrested for a homicide that he clearly did not commit. With brutally cruel detectives and an unjust judicial system, Colin finds himself serving a life sentence for something he played no part in. His best friend, Carl King (Nnamdi Asomugha) unexpectedly finds himself as the only person willing to help Colin fight for freedom, no matter how much opposition stands in their way.
The film sheds light on a painful reality that many individuals, especially those who are poor and/or non-white, find themselves wrongly imprisoned. It’s been only a few months since I was floored by Ava Duvernay’s essential documentary 13th, which ends up being a comprehensive education that all Americans need, and hopefully many will take since it’s streaming on Netflix. It’s possible then, that the individual, personal nature of “Crown Heights” can serve as a nice companion to that film’s scale.
After the film was done, a well-deserved standing ovation greeted the real Colin Warner, and like many others present, I felt personally compelled to shake his hand after seeing his story.
Unfortunately, the film never knows how to turn the true story into a movie with any sort of journey. The danger of any film based on a true story, especially one that takes place over multiple decades, is that it easily falls into the pitfall of being a highlight reel of events that took place, instead of any sort of transformative journey. In this case, even the passage of time is not properly handled: we’re never given any visual cue that much time has passed, only through text cards do we understand just how long it has been. There are potential dramatic moments that fizzle because of a lack of energy or attempts to tell them in a new manner. The movie is heavily dependent on courtroom and legal drama, and yet nothing about the way these scenes are handled feels like anything we haven’t seen before. Ultimately, the film feels like an exercise in going through the motions, rather that fully capturing the emotional journey one must face.
I must reiterate that this review is by no means a reflection of the power or relevance of Colin Warner’s story. After the film was done, a well-deserved standing ovation greeted the real Colin Warner, and like many others present, I felt personally compelled to shake his hand after seeing his story. That being said, I expected more from such a powerful true story, and this film offers little to no innovation and follows too closely to other trappings we’ve seen before. Compared to say, The Hurricane, which covers similar territory, we’re given very little memorable or intriguing ways of telling this story. In the end, I’ve seen many more innovative and emotionally inspiring ways of telling a story than this one, and while I’m grateful to know who Colin Warner is and his story, the film on its own has a limited effect.
94 minutes. ‘Crown Heights’ is rated R. Opening this Friday at ArcLight Hollywood, in theaters everywhere September 8th.