“In my darkness I remember/Momma’s words reoccur to me/”Surrender to the good Lord/And he’ll wipe your slate clean”/Take me to your river/I wanna go.” The somber words to Leon Bridges’ “River,” his voice sopped and heavy with restrained sentiments, filled up the hollow theater as the credits for director Matt Ruskin’s Crown Heights rolled onto the screen. A couple of film critics at the intimate press viewing gingerly got up to leave after the last scene, their minds focused on wherever they had to be next, but the remainder of us—most of whom were black—sat there silently, still processing.
There were a multitude of ways I could’ve felt walking away from the room, especially since I had endured waves of sorrow, disappointment, frustration, flickers of hope and inexplicable rage during the film’s emotionally taxing 94-minute runtime. However, the feeling that stuck with me was gratefulness. It was gratefulness that the real life Trinidadian-born Colin Warner—whose 21 years spent behind bars for a murder he didn’t commit inspired the film—had a web of friends fiercely dedicated to the preservation of his truth, his sanity and, ultimately, his freedom.
Naturally, Lakeith Stanfield, the buzzing Atlanta actor plucked to play Colin in the film, has some of the saddest eyes I’ve seen on the silver screen. They’re paralyzing, almost. It’s not unbelievable to feel the very real sting of impending tears after looking into his and considering the source of Warner’s sadness. “I had to recall on situations and circumstances where I felt isolated, unheard, blamed, guilty for things I had no part in to fit into the fabric of the character,” Stanfield says, reflecting on the responsibility he felt to bring Warner’s truth to light. “I didn’t want to play what I think he might feel; I’d rather just go off my feelings and try to weave it into the fabric of this [role].” So when his wide eyes are sullen, downcast and glossed over with a palpable sense of loss, you believe him. You feel as helpless and alone as he does when he’s led through all the processes convicted felons must face when they commit heinous deeds and are consequently locked away from society.
The thing, though, is that Colin Warner wasn’t that man. It was 15-year-old Norman Simmonds, not 18-year-old Warner, who unloaded a single bullet into the back of Mario Hamilton’s head, killing the teen in the broad daylight of a Brooklyn spring day. But after interrogating panicky pre-teens within the vicinity of the shooting until they pointed out Warner’s mug shot, the New York criminal justice system decided it was him who would serve 15 years to life for being an accomplice—although he knew neither Simmonds nor the victim and had two alibis—to the crime.
From the moment Warner was arrested on April 10, 1980, his childhood friend Carl King, who also emigrated from Trinidad to Brooklyn as a teenager, knew he had to do something to clear his name. So much so that, according to his portrayal in the movie by Nnamdi Asomugha, he designated himself as the primary liaison between Warner and the community he was so quickly snatched from. “I knew that Colin didn’t have anything to do with this crime,” King says now, sitting right beside his pal 37 years after the date. “Knowing that and being his friend, I thought when he got arrested, there’s gonna be a trial, but even before the trial, somebody’s gonna say there was a mistake made. But it didn’t happen either way.”
Crown Heights is about friendship and fairness, the strength of the former and the abysmal lack of the latter. It makes you harbor hatred for certain people, even if you don’t want to. It stirs up hatred for the cowardly ones who bent beneath the crooked will of the police and prosecutors. The film makes you temporarily hate former President Bill Clinton and whoever else spoke out in support of mass incarceration and the 1994 Crime Bill, championing it as if it was good to be had by all. It makes you hate the bullying prison guards who knew they could (and still can) get away with unjust cruelties and overall being a dick. You hate Colin’s feelings of futility, a feeling that black and brown people know painfully well; the feeling of knowing the law will spit and laugh in the face of the innocent, and treat them as if they’re crust beneath their shined shoes.
“To just be thrown away from society for no reason on my part, and to be labeled… That is one of the things that was sticking to me a lot,” Warner says, now a free man. After being exonerated in 2001, he and his family relocated to Georgia. He also received a $2.7 million settlement in 2009. “Someone who is telling me who I am, and I don’t know at that time who I was. I’m 18.”
It wasn’t fair. The tears pooled at the bottom of my eyes and wouldn’t leave through each twist, turn and roadblock of Warner’s story. I felt for him. I could not fathom in my wildest dreams enduring such a loss of life without having remotely anything to do with the reason I was held captive. I shifted in my seat plenty of times as I dealt with my thoughts, upset at what quality “entertainment” fodder black people’s injustices provided, but this movie is a necessary and important one because it speaks so poignantly and potently about how even though we feel free, in America the painful reality that we aren’t still stands.
As frustrating as this well-shot film was, two bright spots brought about the same welling of tears for a different reason: the aforementioned Carl, and Antoinette, Warner’s girlfriend-turned-wife. In the age of fickle communication and lack of loyalty, you wonder if you have as dedicated a friend as Carl was to Colin, who was willing to part from the stability of his family in the name of what’s right and fair. As Warner’s new attorney at the end of the movie summed it up, if this case had happened in the Deep South—Texas, Florida, Louisiana, known racist territories—Colin would have been executed before those excruciating 21 years had time to accumulate. How easily your free life can be snatched from you and dangled in your face at the hands of people who couldn’t give a damn about your promise or your potential.
And Antoinette, played by Natalie Paul—Warner’s last attempt at courtship before his arrest—reemerged into his life at a time when his spirit, mangled by failed attempts at an appeal, dipped to an all time low. Carl was a loyal anchor, but she was the one who saw Colin, who breathed new life and hope into him and who loved him without judgment or consequence. She treated him to conjugal visits, married him while he was still in prison, and made him feel some sort of security and completion after all the life moments he’d missed. “I can easily see how she’s an important guiding force for him, and I think without her, he wouldn’t have been able to make it through,” Stanfield says, singing Paul’s praises as the perfect choice for the film. “We needed someone that could exude that power that [Antoinette] naturally has, but also could represent the vulnerable safe space for Colin in order to allow himself to talk about and feel all the things he felt in a place where he didn’t feel judged.”
While negligence and a sobering lack of respect for human rights and the truth sit at the belly of this film, there’s something to be said about how ironclad black friendships and relationships salve the sting of careless injustice. It made me question my life and the friends who occupy it. My family would put everything on the line for me; that’s not a question I have to ponder over much. But would the people who share no blood ties with me mirror the actions of Carl King? Would they devote two tireless decades to a flurry of court dates, prison visits and defeat after defeat for someone who the system already declared guilty? Would they take on the system and fight back against every obstacle thrown at them? Better yet, would I? Do I have the strength? Do I have the love? Do I have the patience, the focus, and the resilience? These are real questions that raced my mind in the film’s aftermath. I wrestled with myself and how flimsy my dedication felt compared to King’s.
“Colin lives in a village close to my village. It was the same African concept about the village: I know that I’m my brother and sister’s keeper,” King says. “The commitment is knowing where we came from and knowing the duties we had to do, how we were brought up, and how strong we are as a people. That was my thing, my incentive, and my encouragement.”
Even Asomugha had doubts about filling those kind of massive shoes in real life. “I don’t know that I could do what Carl did. You know, maybe,” he says, visibly tussling with the totality of the feat. “Imagine if one of your friends is convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison, but the time that they said they did the murder, you know that they were with your family and friends on the other side of town. So you know that it’s impossible. At what point do you stop fighting for that? It’s a difficult thing to try to wrap your head around, but Carl is able to do it.”
“Sadly he might be an anomaly, he continues. “Maybe there are tons of people that would do that, but it’s an extreme fight.”
Stanfield is more confident in his stance as a friend. “I have a pretty tight circle,” he says. “There’s very little we wouldn’t do for each other, and it’s important to have family in this world and people you can depend on in any given circumstance. I’m fortunate to have that and glad to be that for whoever I can be.”
When it’s all said and done, thanks to the dedication within his support system, Warner has been able to bounce back from a monumental low with love, and walk away from the situation with more life than he walked in with.
“Things in life happen to us, a lot of it is not on our own volition. Things just happen to us and then we have to deal with it, right? That was my path in life,” Warner says, sagely. “I want to show people that, yeah, we can make mistakes to get inside there, but that is not the end of it. That is not your life.”