For a story engineered with such subtlety, reigned by a quiet and thoughtful performance from Lakeith Stanfield, Crown Heights is incredibly forceful in delivery.
Despite reminders either in their opening or closing credits, it’s quite easy to lose yourself in the movie magic of certain biopics and forget they’re based on true events. Crown Heights, however, managed to ground itself throughout, employing the gravitas of a handful of the politicians who made tragic stories like Colin Warner’s possible.
Wrongfully imprisoned for nearly twenty years after being found guilty in 1982 of a murder he did not commit, Colin Warner’s circumstances on screen and in life were shocking, yet not totally unique — and certainly not randomized.
Scored by brutish and predatory stances on crime, levied by the elected officials of his day, the first note we hear indicating all that Warner’s up against evokes the words of Ronald Reagan.
While Warner was already behind bars by the time then-President Reagan launched his now infamous 'War on Drugs,' there’s something to be said for how many other innocent men presumably joined him in prison as a result of the criminalization and over-policing of black neighborhoods that war inspired.
According to the film, of the 2.4 million people in American prisons today, approximately 120,000 of them are innocent.
The plight of those innocent prisoners, Warner among them, perpetually intensified in 1994 with Bill Clinton’s signing of the destructive and discriminatory Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, otherwise simply known as 'the Crime Bill.'
As Warner and his best friend on the outside, Carl King (Nnamdi Asomugha), hope against hope throughout the film, a sobering moment recalls archived footage of Clinton unveiling the bill’s harshest, least-humane features, as if he were a used car salesman fitting America for a death trap.
“Longer sentences, three strikes and you’re out, sixty new capital punishment offenses, more prisons, more prevention, 100,000 more police,” he bragged.
That soundbite added context to a perverse piece of legislature that was only vaguely referenced during his wife’s own presidential campaign last year. While building upon Reagan’s legacy in overpopulating prison cells with black youth, the history of sweeping such injustice under the rug also continued, as Colin Warner is one of only a handful of innocents to be fully exonerated.
While the war on drugs and the crime bill helped jail countless black teens and adolescents across the country for petty and sometimes non-existent crimes, New Yorkers, in particular, felt their necks crack under the boot of supposed law and order, as George Pataki doubled down on then-President Clinton’s assault on civil rights.
In a separate clip featured during the film, then-Governor Pataki is heard promising to eliminate work release and parole for violent felons, and to sign and enforce the death penalty in New York.
Small moments like these illuminated the film’s driving force—a powerful sense of deliberate oppression, served by officials tasked with protecting those they’ve instead chosen to victimize.
During the film’s most poignant exchange, after seeing his friend spend years fighting futilely for his freedom, Warner asks King “you got your family, you got your life—why you keep wasting your time on me?”
“It’s not just about you,” King replies. “It’s bigger than that. It could be me in here—sometimes I feel like it is me.”
As currently enforced and constituted, the judicial system in this country is designed for that exact outcome—for us all to be inside together. Faced with that design, Crown Heights is a Black American’s fear realized.