Forget the recycled superheroes and barrel-scraping fantasy films that have filled screens for the last few months; the most urgent subject matter in American cinema in 2017 has been race — or, more accurately, the deep roots of institutional racism. From the immediacy of documentaries such as Ava DuVernay's 13th and the recent Whose Streets? to historical dramas such as Loving and the new Crown Heights, filmmakers are taking a close look at the tensions behind recent headlines and struggling to understand the past events that foreshadowed them. It's not just a question of showing black lives that matter; it's a matter of exploring situations and conflicts that could only occur because of racial differences.
The subject of race is rarely mentioned in Crown Heights, but it's always present, shaping the circumstances of the characters. A retelling of real events (and based on a lengthy account that aired on This American Life in 2005), it's the story of Colin Warner (Lakeith Stanfield). The dreadlocked young man from Trinidad had been living in Brooklyn for nearly two years when he was arrested in 1980 for a murder he didn't commit. Although the only evidence against him was a statement from a fourteen-year-old boy under pressure from police to pin a suspect, Warner was put on trial and given a sentence of fifteen years to life. (Ironically, the real murderer, whom he'd never previously met, was his co-defendant.) Neatly compressing two decades into a concise 94 minutes, Crown Heights explores how Warner survived his prison sentence while simultaneously showing how his lifelong friend Carl King (Nnamdi Asomugha) spent that time working through the legal system and looking for proof of his innocence.
Even if you're unfamiliar with Warner's history, you can probably guess the outcome, but that doesn't detract from the consistently strong drama. The power of writer-director Matt Ruskin's thoughtful retelling comes from its calm, carefully reasoned realism. This is not an underdog-against-the-system story with fist-pumping moments of triumph or calculated moments of outrage at melodramatic villainy. The subject here is the criminal justice system — the pattern of overworked police, overzealous prosecutors, overcrowded jails and underrepresented defendants that makes it easy for injustice to occur and difficult to fix it. But it's also a story of real people living through real trials, of the endurance of the innocent Warner and the perseverance of King. Guided by strong performances from Stanfield and Asomugha, Ruskin's film shows the complexities of a flawed legal system, balancing it with consistent respect for the humanity of its characters.
It's a simple film but also an expressive one. Years pass, with the leaps of time indicated by brief news montages. As politicians from Reagan to Clinton give their best law-and-order speeches, the bluster of their rhetoric contrasts with the reality of the broken system. There are also brief semi-impressionistic moments where the film becomes visually unclear, the images reduced to streams of light and color, but these aren't simply arthouse flourishes. They create a momentary jolt, a shock to the senses that actually enhances the subjectivity and reminds the viewer of the sheer disorienting illogic of the injustice surrounding Warner and King.
Ultimately what sticks with you about Crown Heights is its uneasy familiarity. The film never says much about race specifically, but we know why Warner ended up in jail and why his innocence made no difference. And though his arrest occurred nearly 40 years ago, it isn't distant history or an indictment of past injustice; it could be happening today. In Crown Heights, Ruskin uses a modest story to indict an entire system for an epidemic of injustice. The sequel is probably taking place around us.