A gripping true story can be a great starting point for a narrative feature, but a starting point isn’t a whole movie. There’s no denying that the tale of Colin Warner, a man who spent decades behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit, is a powerful one, but writer-director Matt Ruskin doesn’t give us anything here that a documentary couldn’t do better.
The non-fiction route is one we’ve already experienced, both directly and indirectly. The Warner case was the basis of a “This American Life” episode, on which “Crown Heights” is directly based, but it also touches upon many of the themes of Ava DuVernay’s “13th,” an examination of the justice system and the inequities it visits upon people of color, and there are no moments in this film that prompt anger or sorrow as effectively as DuVernay does in her broader overview.
We meet Colin (played here by Keith Stanfield of “Atlanta” and “Short Term 12”) in 1980. The film never portrays him as a saint — since we see him steal a car in the first few minutes — but it also establishes his innocence in the murder case for which he’s arrested. It’s clear that the racist NYPD cops involved want to force a confession out of him; failing that, they’ll convince a stooge who’s being threatened with extradition to place Colin at the scene of the crime.
Colin’s legal aid lawyer fails to get him acquitted, and the longer he stays behind bars, the tougher the parole system gets with prisoners found guilty for committing violent crimes. As Colin contends with (and commits) violence behind bars, his best friend on the outside — Nnamdi Asomugha (“Hello, My Name Is Doris”) as Carl King — fights and fund-raises tirelessly to prove Colin’s innocence.
Like many docudramas, “Crown Heights” must contend with the fact that we all know how this is going to end; even if you walk into the theater completely unaware of the Colin Warner case, the fact that the movie immediately establishes his innocence means that eventually he’s going to get out of prison, or there’d be no story. Ruskin’s script, unfortunately, never gives us enough to go on; we don’t really know much about these characters besides their role in moving the plot forward.
Stanfield is an exceedingly talented young actor, but he gets little to play here besides “wet-eyed martyr,” and there are only so many variations on that theme he can explore over the course of his character’s years in prison. (There’s a subplot about Colin’s courtship of and jailhouse marriage to Antoinette, played by Natalie Paul of “Show Me a Hero,” but the couple leaps from flirtation to everlasting devotion so quickly that we never get a clear picture of what brings them together in these trying circumstances.)
For every effective idea “Crown Heights” has — Colin’s reveries that end with the stark realization that he is still inside a cell, for example — there are plenty of bad ones, like the resemblance between the actor playing one of the racist cops and the actor playing the lawyer who will eventually vindicate Colin. There’s no faulting the film for cultural relevance, but it never effectively channels legitimate outrage into effective drama.