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D: Matt Ruskin / 100m

Cast: Lakeith Stanfield, Nnamdi Asomugha, Natalie Paul, Amari Cheatom, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Bill Camp, Luke Forbes, Zach Grenier, Josh Pais, Ron Canada, Nestor Carbonell, Skylan Brooks, Sarah Goldberg, Adriane Lenox

Crown Heights ends with a sobering statistic: of the 2.4 million people currently in prison in the US, it’s estimated that 120,000 are likely to be innocent. The movie, winner of the Audience Award for US Dramatic Film at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, examines a case that, though it all began back in April 1980, could still be relevant today, both for its victim and his friends and family. Following the murder of sixteen year old Melvin Grant in a reported drive-by shooting, eighteen year old Colin Warner (Stanfield), is arrested and accused of being the driver when the murder was committed. Despite his protests, the police tell Colin that they have an eyewitness and they know he’s guilty. The case proceeds slowly but inexorably to trial, where the eyewitness, fourteen year old Clarence Lewis (Brooks), retracts his original testimony and clears Colin of any involvement. But it makes no difference. With Colin connected to his co-defendent (and actual shooter) Anthony Gibson (Forbes), he’s convicted and sentenced to fifteen years to life.

And so begins twenty-one years of incarceration thanks to a combination of mistaken identity, perjury and official misconduct. The police aren’t interested in whether or not Colin is innocent, the district attorney is in cahoots with the police, and it doesn’t matter that there’s no physical evidence or actual eyewitness testimony to place Colin at the scene of the crime – his fate has miscarriage of justice written all over it. Once in prison, Colin pins his hopes on various appeals but they’re all denied. On the outside, his friend Carl ‘KC’ King (Asomugha), tries his best to have Colin’s conviction overturned but encounters setback after setback. It’s not until Carl meets attorney William Robedee (Camp) that there’s a glimpse of light at the end of the tunnel. Robedee examines the case and determines that the only way for Colin to have a chance of being released is not to try and have his conviction overturned, but to reinvestigate the case and prove once and for all that Colin wasn’t involved in the murder of Melvin Grant.

How Robedee and Carl achieve this is forms the basis of the movie’s final half hour, but before then director and screenwriter Matt Ruskin confidently and credibly explores the way in which Colin was effectively framed by the police, first as Melvin’s killer, and then, when Gibson was arrested and admitted committing the murder, as his accomplice. The relentless nature of the police’s efforts to see Colin convicted is reflected in scenes where the lead detective (Grenier) goads and intimidates potential witnesses (whether they are or not) into identifying Colin as the killer. And in some of them the district attorney (Pais) hovers in the background, impassive and implacable. It’s a tragic situation, made all the worse by the implicit sense of impotency that soon settles on Colin as his fate slowly unfolds and the enormity of the injustice he’s facing becomes more and more apparent, and more and more soul-destroying. Once in prison, Colin struggles to find his place, briefly uniting with his Trinidadian brethren, and challenging the authority of the guards before settling into a more stoic existence.

Further injury is added to the insult he’s already experienced when his parole hearing focuses on his previous bad behaviour rather than the strides he’s made since then. Even a blossoming romance involving Antoinette (Paul), a young woman from his neighbourhood (the Crown Heights of the title), isn’t enough to completely dispel the despair Colin begins to feel more strongly as the years pass by. As the beleaguered Colin, Stanfield plays him throughout and is quietly impressive, drawing out a solid portrayal of a man betrayed and ignored by an unjust system, and sometimes justifiably angry at the way he’s treated. It’s not a showy, attention-seeking performance, but rather an attempt to reflect the ways in which Colin sought to keep himself from submitting to self-pity or just giving up altogether (though he comes perilously close to doing both at times). Ever since his debut in the original, short version of Short Term 12 (2008), Stanfield has become an actor to watch, and here he shows an empathy and an understanding for Colin’s situation that is both intuitive and well judged, impassioned and subtly observed as well.

The movie stays with Colin for most of the first hour, and charts the various setbacks he experiences, until it shifts the focus to Carl and his renewed efforts to see his friend restored to freedom. This section of the movie is just as much about one man’s determination to see justice done as it is about the price that justice demands. Carl nearly loses his wife, Briana (Blake), and his children in his efforts to free Colin, and the movie asks the question, is such a selfless and dogged pursuit ever worth the potential pitfalls or drawbacks? Sensibly it leaves the answer for the viewer to decide, but Carl’s commitment and the subsequent drawing together of the people who can prove Colin’s innocence is assembled with a methodical adherence to the rules of evidentiary procedure, and proves unexpectedly gripping. As the final pieces of the puzzle fall into place, the viewer should be asking themselves, why didn’t the police do this in the first place?

Questions such as these arise throughout the movie, but Ruskin is wise not to explore them too closely or for too long. He even avoids highlighting the obvious issue of the institutionalised racism prevalent in the police force at the time, and leaves it unsaid, more of a given than something that needs explaining. Similarly the pressures of being in prison are given expression through Colin’s attempts to fit in, and Ruskin allows these moments to play out matter-of-factly and with few overly dramatic embellishments. The movie remains steadfast in its approach from start to finish, with Ruskin displaying a command of the material that makes it all the more effective, and all the more emotive when it needs to be. Aside from a handful of sequences where Colin imagines he’s free – sequences that have a hallucinatory, visually powerful feel to them – the movie has a dour, unsettling visual style to it that reflects Colin’s mindset and situation, and which is used with an admirable sense of restraint. Ruskin has put together a modest, yet haunting movie that tells its tale simply but with a depth that’s borne out of the writing and the performances, both of which complement and dovetail around each other with a modest skill that is the hallmark of the movie as a whole.

Rating: 8/10 – a low-key gem that sneaks up on the viewer and gradually reveals just how good it really is, this could have been yet another angry tirade against an uncaring and unfair system, but Crown Heights is more than that, and it deserves a much wider exposure than it’s likely to receive; with Stanfield and Asomugha heading up a splendid cast, and Ruskin able to subvert or overcome so many of the clichés that are inherent in this type of movie, this is sincere, moving, and if those statistics are to be believed, entirely relevant as a commentary on the current US criminal justice system.