The time is 1980. The place is the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn in New York City. The man is 18-year-old Colin Warner. It’s a familiar scenario. An unarmed black man is walking through his own neighborhood, minding his business, when, within the blink of an eye, his whole life changes. Police officers pull up, tires screeching, and Warner is alarmed and confused because he’s being arrested. And, immediately, we’re faced with one of America’s harshest truths: Black men (and men of color) are often deemed guilty until proved innocent. And, often, no one is trying to prove that black men are innocent.
Warner is brought into the precinct and basically told that he’s murdered a man. And Warner has no say in his own fate. There are no choices for him to make as the officers try to make him confess, which Warner never does because he didn’t do it. But the guttural pleas of innocence from Warner’s lips fall on deaf ears.
The film Crown Heights forces the viewer to face America’s demons—racism, a crooked justice system and the dehumanization of prisoners—all in one emotional ride. The knot in my stomach ached for a teenage Colin (Lakeith Stanfield) having to face mental and physical anguish in prison, knowing he was an innocent man.
From the arresting officers to the prosecutors to the prison guards and Warner’s own legal counsel, the movie takes us down a long, frustrating road of something we’re mostly all aware: a system that doesn’t work for people who can’t defend themselves. And it’s usually people of color, namely black men, just like Colin Warner, who cannot defend themselves.
Crown Heights shows you that clear evidence doesn’t even implicate Warner. But the evils of law enforcement are determined to finger him and make him pay for the crime. And as a viewer, you’re left wondering why, even though you’re fully aware of the dangers and circumstances of racism.
“I just thought they would be fair,” Warner’s mom says at one point in the film.
We all have the hope that the justice system will actually bring forth justice, even though we know better. We all held our breath, waiting to hear that George Zimmerman, Michael Dunn, or Blane Salamoni and Howie Lake were all found guilty of murder.
And even though you know Warner’s fate, you still hold your breath when the judge reluctantly reads the verdict.
Most prisoners know deep down they put themselves here. I don’t have that comfort. —Colin Warner (Lakeith Stanfield)
But perhaps the biggest star of this entire film isn’t a person at all—it’s Warner’s support system in the form of his longest and dearest friend, Carl King (Nnamdi Asomugha).
As soon as he hears about the arrest, King is at the precinct to bail his friend out, only to be told that he has been denied bail. This will be the beginning of a 21-year battle King willingly takes on to help his friend see freedom again.
How long would it take for you to lose hope? I know that I am a good friend, but to have a dedication like King’s and stick with Warner through 21 infuriating years of rejected justice is just a level of friendship I’m not so sure I’d have been able to reach.
At one point, even Warner is over the constant disappointment and he chastises King for being there for him and begs him to stop. But King (Asomugha) counters with: “It’s not just about you. It’s bigger than that. It could be me in here. Sometimes I feel like it is me.”
And it is us, all of us. Mass incarceration and wrongful imprisonment affect us all. People go to jail more than 11 million times every year. Many of them are criminals, yes, but not everyone fits into the same mold.
Colin Warner’s story is one of many, and that’s what made me sad leaving the theater. While he’s now free and able to champion for others falsely accused, the fact that people like him even exist makes you feel like this country is never going to value people of color in a way that humanizes us.