Life’s most revealing gifts are said to be patience and time. In Sundance standout Crown Heights, both hold the fate of Colin Warner, a Trinidad-born, Brooklyn-raised man who served 21 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.
The Matt Ruskin–directed film cracks open the topic of wrongful convictions. Warner’s situation is rather unique but relatable to many who have experienced the mass incarceration system. No evidence in the 1980 shooting death of Mario Hampton was connected to the then 18-year-old except for a coerced statement by 14-year-old Thomas Charlemagne, who randomly picked out Warner’s mug shot from a binder.
With a painful time-lapse supporting the film, audiences will learn how Warner’s longtime pal Carl “KC” King makes it his life’s mission to prove Warner’s innocence.
Not everyone has a miracle floating in their rearview. In 2007, a report released by the Innocence Project found that New York holds the highest amount of wrongful convictions; only a few dozen were examined. It prompted the New York Bar Association to examine more cases two years later, through its task force on wrongful convictions. What followed were breakdowns of defense practices, racial and political, which proved just how far detectives would go to solve a case, and how deeply prosecutors craved high conviction rates.
In Crown Heights, we see what life was like for prisoners before this data existed. Warner, played by the incomparable Lakeith Stanfield, explained to VIBE how he prepared for the role.
“I had to take my time and dive into it and listen to get all the details,” Stanfield said. “I did research outside the script to find out what Warner’s story was about, since I hadn’t heard it before.” Known for his roles in Atlanta, Short Term 12 and Get Out, the 26-year-old took a layered approach to capturing Warner’s life.
Between pockets of time Warner spends behind bars, each scene opens with Stanfield whispering, “Please don’t let it be a cell.” We know where Warner wakes up but are wishing for another outcome.
Stanfield hopes Warner’s joys and pains resonate through the minds and hearts of the audience. “I just want [the audience] to go into it with an open mind and take from it what they will,” he said. “I hope that you can take the idea that it’s important to be steadfast and perseverant in certain environments. I hope that people realize that one man or woman can really make a difference.”
The mistakes of the Reagan and Clinton eras of the ill-fated War on Drugs and the infamous 1993 Crime Bill brought forth purveyors who wanted to reform the system—for the better this time.
As the country finally grew privy to fatal instances of police brutality, Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson created the Conviction Review Unit, which has exonerated over 20 people (most African-American) since its launch in 2014. Thompson died in 2016 after a battle with cancer, but his legacy continues. The city has taken wrongful convictions more seriously and shelled out millions in settlement cases for those who lost portions of their lives behind bars.
Crown Heights also pays deep homage to King (played by Nnamdi Asomugha), Warner’s bredren who turned his own life upside down for justice. “I learned a lot from his friends and family about the things that he’s done for other people in the community that he didn’t even know,” Asomugha tells VIBE. “It was tough for me to talk to him now, several years later, to pull from what’s he’s been through all those years before.”
Asomugha, who is a producer on the film, says projects like Crown Heights must exist to combat the deep complexities of the mass incarceration system.
“It takes time to change a system and to change a mindset,” he said. “Films like this and Time: The Kalief Browder Story are eye-opening. There’s the 13th, again eye-opening because it highlights the fact that slavery really didn’t end in 1865 but that it kind of evolved and connected the dots into mass incarceration.”
After a long battle with time and patience, Warner was exonerated in 2001. Perseverance and action filled those years. Hundreds of thousands might share Warner’s story and may soon enough share its ending: freedom. “I think the more we add to the conversation,” Asomugha says, “the more we can change.”
Crown Heights, the winner of Sundance’s Audience Award, is in theaters now.