Lakeith Stanfield delivers a breakout performance in "Crown Heights," a dramatized true story of miscarried justice that he anchors with restrained stillness and sensitivity.
In 1980, Colin Warner, a Trinidad native living in New York City, was convicted of murder, identified by two 15-year-olds later found to have been manipulated by the police. After serving more than 20 years in prison, Warner finally was released, thanks to the tireless efforts of his best friend Carl "KC" King.
Portrayed by Stanfield (who had a supporting role in "Get Out") in a watchful, wounded performance, Warner is sympathetic from the get-go. The movie begins with snippets of reggae music and "The Message" before swiftly moving through a petty crime that he did commit, an arrest for a murder that he didn't, two years spent in jail and a perfunctory trial.
Accenting the narrative with video montages of cultural and political changes over the subsequent two decades of Warner's incarceration in state prison, writer/director Matt Ruskin (who cut his filmmaking teeth on documentaries) points up the law-and-order policies that came into vogue during the period, first under Ronald Reagan and later under George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
To anyone who has seen Ava DuVernay's illuminating and infuriating documentary "13th," about the racist roots of mass incarceration, this Kafkaesque slice of that history will ring disquietingly true.
As compelling as Warner's story is, the movie never quite takes hold cinematically. It's a procedural whose central protagonist remains necessarily passive and something of a cipher, despite the wellsprings of emotion that Stanfield manages to tap simply by gazing balefully out a cell window.
At one point, he disappears from the narrative entirely, as KC (former All-Pro NFL defensive back Nnamdi Asomugha) and a neighborhood friend named Antoinette (Natalie Paul; TV's "The Deuce" and "Boardwalk Empire") embark on their own investigation of the case, eventually at the risk of KC's own warm and burgeoning family life.
The pacing is dampened by several un-cinematic scenes of people opening letters, reading legal documents or talking on the phone.
Inspired by an episode of "This American Life," this might be one of those stories that didn't want to be a feature film as much as a granular, densely layered serial drama like "The Night Of," which coincidentally also co-stars the great Bill Camp, here playing a mild-mannered lawyer named Bill Robedee.
It's clear that Ruskin wanted to avoid the kind of lurid imagery that has invited criticism for a similarly themed movie, "Detroit." Whereas Kathryn Bigelow's film immersed viewers in the uncompromisingly visceral world of impunity, abuse and indifference, "Crown Heights" takes a more low-key, measured tone.
It also, not incidentally, gives its black characters the agency, power to fight back and moral victory pointedly missing in the story that unfolded a generation earlier.
Do we really need another cautionary tale — albeit in a more arms-length style and set in a different time period — about essentially the same thing? With the dogged resourcefulness worthy of its characters, "Crown Heights" suggests not only that we do, but that we haven't had nearly enough.
★★★ out of 4 stars
Rating: R for violence, profanity, sex and nudity.
Theater: Willow Creek