Heroism in “Crown Heights”

Heroism in “Crown Heights”

“Crown Heights,” a movie directed by Matt Ruskin, based on a book by Lisa Lorincz written with material gathered from Carl King and Colin Warner, is an amazing film about heroism that covers a long period of time. Like “The Odyssey” it refers to the passage of twenty years, and it shows how much people change in that period of time. It is also about the recovery of home and thus about the persistence of a certain desire through all the changes. So too is it about imprisonment and freedom, and in that context, it is a film about growth and learning. The two main characters, Carl King (Nnamdi Asomugha) and Colin Warner (LaKeith Stanfield) transform from being thoughtless rebellious boys into wise older men. They have to learn from their mistakes in a kind of dance in which they trade places. Colin starts out the more active and Carl is made inactive by helplessness. However, as Colin adjusts to his situation and calms down, Carl becomes more active finding a way to free his friend. They do this dance in tandem, one waning as the other waxes. What is most striking is that this tale of heroism is true and thus is told realistically, and that makes it stand out in contrast to an immense body of film and literature that insists that heroism has to mean having superpowers and these superpowers must be used against an equivalent evil. These two men are heroic, but they are given no more in body, mind and spirit than any mortal, and that makes them all the more magnificent. They fight against a monstrous system way more powerful than they are, that wants to deprive them of their human feelings. The film also shows the social context they must deal with – the crackdown on crime during the Reagan years followed by more of the same under Bush and Clinton, who well knew that being “soft” on crime was a recipe for electoral defeat.

The movie begins frantically; Colin is a foolish boy who wants things. He steals a car and uses it to get a TV and is almost immediately caught by the police, who want to use him for their own ends. They are indeed monstrous. To them Colin is nothing but a criminal who could be guilty of anything. They quickly make him the central figure in a murder case. After badgering a witness into making an identification, they move to construct enough false evidence to convict him. At the same time Carl is distraught at the arrest of his friend, but like Colin, is helpless in the face of an immense corrupt bureaucracy. The early scenes of the movie show that bureaucracy in clumsy action, putting together the pieces to convict Colin with cynical negligence. Their job is to get convictions; if that means dehumanizing their victims, why should they care? The case against Colin persists, even through a hung jury, even though the main witness has disappeared, even though the police, almost by accident, find the actual murderer. Colin goes from being the killer to the driver of a car in a drive-by shooting. One of the most gripping scenes in the movie is when Colin and the murderer get a chance to talk. Colin, even with his freedom in the balance, doesn't tell the murderer to clear him. The murderer, possibly thinking they will both get off, says nothing. These moments of conscience are repeated later in the film and play a key role in getting Colin free. Three people, knowing Colin is innocent, decide to do the right thing and tell the truth. However, in this early trial, the murderer doesn't speak and both men are convicted; Colin gets 25 years to life.

So follows twenty years of painful learning. For Colin prison is a nightmare against which he initially rebels. Aggrieved at the injustice he has suffered, he crashes against the walls of his confinements. He fights with the guards and the inmates and only gradually realizes he must learn to survive. He suffers beatings, loneliness (even solitary confinement), a sense of desertion, the belief that he has been forgotten. Yet, through it all, he grows. He stops making useless gestures, he enrolls in courses and gets an education, but he refuses to give up his principles. Even when he has the chance of getting parole, he refuses to say he is contrite over a crime he did not commit, and this dooms his chances. However, what is perhaps most heroic is that he maintains the ability to love, and thus he acquires a wife. Antoinette (Natalie Paul), who knew him when he was free, takes an interest in his case, writes to him, visits him, and falls in love with him. Facilitated by a sympathetic woman guard, they have conjugal visits in the terrible setting of the prison (something that would never happen without their being married). Also deep into his time in prison, Colin comes to accept his situation; he gains a kind of freedom. He becomes a man who understands the world and realizes he must do the best he can, which is to remain human in an inhuman system.

In parallel to the story of Colin is that of Carl, who knows his friend is innocent but can do nothing to help him. He too must learn about limitations, his own and those of the legal system. Two major efforts come to nothing, the first based on going to the Court of Appeals, the second on getting a lower court to take the case again. The Court of Appeals turns down the motion and the lawyer in the lower court is incompetent and can't make a sensible presentation. The latter is a double setback for Carl as he gave $5,000 to the fund to pay the lawyer. This opens a rift with his wife because the couple can ill afford to pay this amount. After the two false starts comes a third. Carl has been spending so much time in court he learns about process servers, and he becomes one. He realizes the skills he learns, reading legal documents carefully and tracking down the people to be served, give him the means to re-investigate the case. This he does masterfully with the help of a real estate lawyer he works for who befriends him. Together they find that the so-called witness who identified Colin has been deported to Haiti where he was killed. However, they then locate the murdered man's brother, next someone who knew the witness was lying, and finally the actual murderer. All of them give depositions showing Colin had nothing to do with the murder. Ironically, if Colin manages to find love in prison, Carl's obsession with the case ruins his marriage. Twice, while investigating, he forgets to pick up his child from school. After the second instance, his wife takes the children and leaves.

However, the two friends come together in the end, freed after a long struggle. Colin is freed from prison in which he has found a positive space, and Carl is freed from the consuming obsession to get his friend out of confinement. Both have paid a heavy price. Colin has lost twenty years of normal life and he has been battered, and Carl has lost his wife. However, through persistence, they have both maintained their dignity and humanity, this against a system that wants to crush them, to get them to admit and feel that they are nothing.

The acting by the three principles is extraordinarily good, very sensitive to the tensions they are portraying. Matt Ruskin shows that internal tensions can be even more affecting than pyrotechnics and special effects. This is not an escapist movie. It doesn't help us to forget about real life. It makes us want to understand it and see the real triumph that is possible within it.

– John DeWind

UpdatesRobbie Klein