Extrapolating from known DNA exoneration, it is estimated that conservatively, at least 1% of prisoners are wrongfully convicted, which works out to over 20 000 people. But these are estimates drawn only from overturned verdicts, not the ones that are never discovered. The Innocence Project called 2018 “a record year in exonerations” and while we applaud their efforts, what it really boils down to is another example of how the system is badly broken.
Crown Heights is the story Colin Warner (Lakeith Stanfield), a man wrongfully convicted of murder based on no evidence whatsoever, and pretty flimsy hearsay. Numerous people told the cops and the court that they had the wrong man, and in fact the right man had indeed been arrested, but his plea deal refusal meant Warner got tried beside him instead of released. What a technicality to get sent away to prison for. Even the presiding judge seemed to agree, sentencing Warner to the minimum allowable time (15 years to life), and the actual bad guy to the maximum allowable time (9 years to life, because he was just a few months younger). Despite his innocence, Warner languishes in prison for decades; the only reason he’s not completely forgotten is his best friend Carl King (Nnamdi Asomugha) who works tirelessly on the outside, with many personal sacrifices made, to free his friend. His wife feels like she and the kids play second fiddle to his crusade, but King knows that his friend is innocent, and does not know how to simply live with that.
Crown Heights is based on a true story. A true, very sad, very depressing story. We know this genre well by now, but it’s important to remember that behind every film are dozens of real people wasting away behind bars for crimes they did not commit. And of course these people are overwhelmingly likely to be black because the system simply does not work for those who cannot afford to adequately defend themselves. Innocence is a concept that can be bought; guilt and poverty are linked by circumstance.
When we say people die from racism, we don’t just mean the cops who keep killing black people. We mean that black people are 4 times more likely to die from COVID-19. Black people make up a disproportionate number of prisoner executions, and they’re more likely to receive the death penalty when the victim is white. America has created a ‘medical apartheid,’ with African-American infant mortality rates 2.2 times higher and black babies 3.2 times more likely to die from complications due to low birth weight, and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) (Incidentally, in Canada we have socialized medicine – it is free for everyone – while Americans have a privatized system which means if you can’t afford medical treatment, you don’t get it, but the truth is, the Canadian government spends less on health care per capita than the U.S. does! It makes NO SENSE).
Writer/Director Matt Ruskin first heard Colin’s story on the radio show This American Life. He was so moved by the story that he couldn’t stop thinking about it for weeks. I’m not sure his script quite gets to the heart of the story. To me, this is more than just another broken system story. It’s a real testament to enduring friendship and loyalty and I wish the movie had balanced things between the two a little more equally. But even if Ruskin doesn’t have much to add to the genre, he does present an affecting and effective film, mostly because he doesn’t overplay his hand. The temptation toward melodrama must be strong, but he avoids it in favour of a quiet kind of power. Nnamdi Asomugha shows us focus, determination, and steadfast support. Stanfield manages to find his character somewhere between anguish and apathy, rage and resignation, despair and desperation. The story earns our attention and rewards us with new trains of thought.