‘Crown Heights’ is the true story of bias in the US justice system

“Crown Heights” tells the harrowing story of a falsely imprisoned man’s 20-year fight to prove his innocence.

2.5 million prisoners in the United States.

120,000 are innocent people.

If there is one thing that is all too familiar in the black community, it is the injustices imposed through the American criminal justice system. U.S. presidents for generations have enforced tough-on-crime laws that have sent incarceration rates skyrocketing.

Decades of legislation, such as Ronald Reagan’s “War on Drugs” and Bill Clinton’s “three-strike rule,” have made it difficult for people of color to be released from prison.

Crown Heights, which opens Sept. 9, tells the true story of Connor Wilkins, an 18-year-old Trinidadian native wrongfully convicted of murder in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn during the Spring of 1980. Wilkins ends up being sentenced to life in prison. (His unbelievable tale was once featured in a 2005 segment of NPR’s This American Life.)

The film begins with Wilkins, played by Lakeith Stanfield, crashing a car he’s stolen for a chop shop where he works. It was the latest incident in a troubled past that ends with Wilkins being labeled a criminal by New York police. As the film progresses, we begin to see a more complete study of Wilkins — a soft-spoken and loving young man who tries to win the affection of his neighbor, Antoinette, played by Natalie Paul.

This is no redemption story. Rather, it’s a drama-fueled nightmare.

Unrelated to the initial car crash,Wilkins is later wrangled into a police car and questioned for the murder of a young Brooklynite.

The film highlights the egregious actions taken by NYPD as they force a 15-year-old who never saw the actual shooting to identify Wilkins as the killer.

With Wilkins convicted and locked away, his childhood friend, Calvin ‘C.K.’ King, dedicates his life to clearing Wilkins’ name. The drama heats up as the film details the struggles the two men face because they lack the necessary resources — money, competent lawyers, etc. — to reverse Wilkins’ conviction. When Wilkins asks his friend why he continues to fight on his behalf, King replies, “because it could have easily been me.”

Stanfield, who has starred in films such as “Get Out” and “Straight Outta Compton” and television shows such as FX’s “Atlanta,” gives a phenomenal performance as the timid Wilkins. Although King’s character, played by former Oakland Raiders cornerback Nnmadi Asomugha, who also co-produces the film, is the most memorable, both actors transform into their Caribbean characters complete with spot-on island accents.

The film struggles slightly under its director, Matt Ruskin, who does a good enough job of capturing the mental unrest of a man who realizes his future is out of his hand. Crown Heights seems to find itself crunching years of storytelling into 99 minutes. Ruskin makes frequent use of montage-style storytelling to condense the film into its shrunken runtime.

Crown Heights focuses on themes of love, family, and perseverance. The story is primarily told through the eyes of Wilkins and King, with a brief departure in the latter half when the story of the murder is recounted by witnesses years later to a defense lawyer representing Wilkins.

While the structure of the film is choppy and not linear, the award-worthy acting from Stanfield and Asomugha make up for its shortcoming.

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