Showing “Crown Heights” at The Black Lady Theatre

Showing “Crown Heights” at The Black Lady Theatre Sept. 19

On the evening of September 19th, members of the community gathered at the Black Lady Theatre for a screening of the 2017 film “Crown Heights”, directed by Matt Ruskin. The film tells the story of Colin Warner’s imprisonment in 1980 for a murder he did not commit, and his 21-year-long journey to freedom, aided by the tireless work of Carl King. 

The screening was followed by a panel discussion featuring King, Warner, Esmeralda Simmons of the Center for Law and Social Justice, and David Keenan, a former Federal Public Defender. King and Warner spoke about their experiences portrayed in the film, emphasizing the importance of their friendship in keeping them both from giving in to despair despite numerous setbacks. The fact that Warner was proven innocent by King, a person in the community and fellow Trinidadian immigrant, was not lost on the panelists, as they all called for greater community cohesion and mutual aid in the face of ongoing criminal injustice. In fact, Warner shared that King was able to succeed where other professionals failed because of the unconditional love they shared as childhood friends - King’s persistence and personal sacrifice were nowhere to be found in the high-powered and expensive lawyers they hired to work on Warner’s appeals.

Simmons did not miss the opportunity to highlight Warner’s case as an issue of racial injustice; she reminded the audience that, despite some small progress having been made since the time of Warner’s arrest, the criminal justice system continues to enforce institutional racism that results in wrongful convictions and the mass incarceration of people of color, especially in Crown Heights and the surrounding neighborhoods. Simmons’ rallying cry of, “this is not entertainment, this is our community!” resonated with attendees, as we understood that the screening of this movie could be not just a diversion, but a catalyst for building a more caring and connected community that empowers its members to fight for racial justice. Citing the staggering statistic that there are approximately 150,000 wrongfully incarcerated people trapped in our criminal justice system, the conversation shifted to lawyer David Keenan, who is involved in ongoing innocence work. Keenan shared that studying Warner’s case, and King’s work to free him, directly led to Keenan being able to exonerate Marquise Jackson, another wrongfully incarcerated young man. 

Although this film portrays events that took place nearly 40 years ago, the focus of the screening and panel was undeniably set on the future, and how we can learn from the work and experience of King and Warner in order to cultivate a more resilient and cohesive community. Despite the understandable animosity towards the police and criminal justice system, panelists encouraged attendees to become involved in local political affairs, to build relationships with community leaders (including police and elected officials), and to use these relationships to effect positive change for the community and hold those in power accountable to their promises to represent our interests. I came away from the screening feeling inspired by Warner and King’s resilience, and the fact that, through art, they are disseminating their story in order to galvanize the next generation of racial justice activists. 

Thanks to Omar Hardy and Sherise Parris from the Black Lady Theatre for hosting the event, Isaac Ferguson for promoting the event on his WBAI radio show, Caribbean Views and Beyond, and Chris Ko and Angelica for providing snacks and drinks.

– Chloe Jensen

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