As sad as it is, real world dramas of wrongful conviction are fairly commonplace in cinema.
There’s even an entire genre that’s been carved out for courtroom stories alone, so it’s somewhat difficult, straight off the bat, to stand out from the ever-multiplying crowd, no matter how moving or political, or equally baffling your source material is. And sadly, despite much buzz, Crown Heights lands right slap bang in the middle; neither exceptional, nor bad. An entirely entertaining and involving drama, but one that lacks any real sense of staying power.
Easily its firmest selling though is its central performance. The now thoroughly tried and tested Lakeith Stanfield (a staple of every notable drama from Short Term 12, to Selma, Straight Outta Compton and most recently, this year’s trailblazer Get Out) feels almost effortlessly real; a tragic and although troubled, devoutly likeable lead. It’s a tremendously vulnerable turn, full of both power and completely raw honesty, that really anchors the film in place, even as everything around it starts to wobble.
The main problem with Crown Heights is just the sheer volume of content and information its director Matt Ruskin is trying to put across. Its events span over an exhausting 20 year stretch, stitching fairly complex human drama with waffly case details, and using blindingly fast political montages as the tape to bind it all together.
Trying to consolidate the lives and struggles of not just one but several different people, as well as the ins and outs of an infamous court ruling and, to top it all off, the government policies and movements that shaped the whole thing together politically, into less than 100 minutes of screen time, is frankly insane. And yet still Ruskin tries.
The result is something that feels both simultaneously rushed and ridiculously epic and long in equal measure. By the time Warner’s story finally brings itself to a close, so much theoretical, in-movie time has passed that you can almost feel yourself turning grey with him, whilst so many of the early foundations for the case are breezed through so quickly, it’s difficult to get a handle fully on the magnitude of exactly what’s going on.
Crown Heights is a powerful film, emotionally charged and very much in touch with the politics of its history; everything here is important, there’s no denying that. It’s just that there’s simply far too much of it, and what is here is so diluted and rushed that nothing has quite the effect it deserves.
There’s enough material here to easily cover a film twice as long, and in cramming it all down to fit the indie mould, Ruskin ultimately sacrifices a little too much of an otherwise, tremendously humbling and soulful story.
Crown Heights was screened as part of the Sundance London Film Festival 2017.