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Crown Heights Review

Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune

Crown Heights poster

"The truth is going to come out." From friends and supporters on the outside, the wrongfully incarcerated Trinidadian immigrant at the center of the new film "Crown Heights" hears this line, and variations, like a drumbeat, throughout the years of his life behind bars. Sometimes he believes it; often he can't, because so little in the judicial and penal systems supports anything like optimism.

Played with calmly expressive intensity by Lakeith Stanfield, Brooklyn resident Colin Warner is the latest embodiment of the wrong-man scenario we've seen so often in fact-based movies (along with the fictional ones). The wrinkle here concerns Warner's best friend, Carl King (known as KC), who becomes Warner's advocate, defender, social justice warrior and self-trained detective and legal eagle. In writer-director Matt Ruskin's absorbing if facile treatment of this remarkable true story, KC is played, with warm assurance, by Nnamdi Asomugha (former NFL defensive back); Warner's wife, Antoinette, whom he marries while he's in prison, is portrayed by Natalie Paul, who does a lot with a little here.

The actors are all excellent, from the leads down to the supporting ranks; Bill Camp, ace character man, is a substantial asset as the lawyer who joins KC's cause. The actors, in fact, are more seasoned and interesting than "Crown Heights" itself. Taken from a 2005 episode of the public radio show "This American Life," Ruskin's script lays out the chronology of Warner's ordeal neatly, with a few consciously poetic flourishes as Warner recalls his childhood back in Trinidad, before America, before Brooklyn. The film proceeds with a ticktock, seesaw rhythm, tracking Warner, then KC, as the years grind on.

The circumstances of the injustice are sadly common. On April 10, 1980, Warner was arrested following the slaying of a 16-year-old on Brooklyn's Flatbush Avenue. He was innocent, but after police interrogated a witness to the killing, a scared 14-year-old, the kid played pick-a-perp and pointed at random to Warner's mug shot, one of many in the police book placed before him.

That was enough to put Warner behind bars; "Crown Heights" dramatizes with uneven effectiveness the next, long, ultimately redemptive chapter in Warner's life. In his second narrative feature directorial effort, Ruskin handles it smoothly and with an eye toward pace, even at the expense of the honest, offhanded moments that can make a galling true crime story such as this come alive on the screen.

When the actors get their chances, "Crown Heights" rises above the routine. On "Atlanta" and, earlier, in the film "Short Term 12," Stanfield has asserted his talent and his penetrating way with a close-up. Even when the filmmaking technique informing "Crown Heights" (a recent audience award winner at the Sundance Film Festival) goes soft, his performance stays tough and straight and true.

MPAA rating: R (for language, some sexuality/nudity and violence).

Running time: 1:40

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