By Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J., Chicago Crusader
“Crown Heights” is a documentary about Colin Warner who was arrested in connection with a murder in 1980 and who spent more than 20 years in jail in New York before he was released. When Warner finally set foot outside of prison, it was largely due to the diligent commitment of his best friend Carl King.
Warner lived in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, N.Y., and was basically trying to piece a living together, when he was implicated in a murder of a young man. Warner came from a tight knit family and community of residents who had come to New York from their native Trinidad and other West Indian locations.
The entire development of Warner being fingered as the driver for another man who murdered the young victim was so haphazardly gathered that you just wouldn’t believe it was true, if you weren’t watching the end result on the big screen.
It turns out that the witness, who was merely a child, was lying, and even the man who was found guilty of pulling the trigger admitted that he had never seen Warner, who was played by Lakeith Stanfield, and didn’t know him. But the racist legal system, judge, jury, attorneys of the time didn’t want to hear any reasoning. They were just trying to close the case. Mind you: the victim was Black. Warner, as much as he tried to defend himself and assert his innocence, was up against the wall. His friend King raised money for him initially, as the court date loomed, but the attorney that they hired for $15,000 just basically took the money and didn’t present a compelling argument that would have freed Warner.
At trial, the shooter named Norman Simmonds was found guilty of killing Mario Hamilton, a young Jamaican man living in the nearby Flatbush neighborhood. After a hung jury, Simmonds declined a plea deal that would have freed Warner, and during a second trial Warner was sentenced to a minimum of 15 years to life in prison.
After around seven years, Simmonds was released from prison. And even after he had signed an affidavit that would have cleared Warner, Warner still had no recourse. During his parole hearing after 15 years of confinement, Warner was adamant about not apologizing for a crime that he knew he hadn’t committed. After a lot of legal wrangling, and after King—who was played by Nnamdi Asomugha a former NFL player and husband of actress Kerry Washington—became a court process server to get closer to attorneys, Warner finally walked free after about 21 years in prison. Of course, Warner lost a lot; and King lost a lot, as well. King sacrificed his job and his wife and family in order to free his friend.
“Crown Heights” is more than just a film of friendship and determination. It shows the love of one countryman for another (both King and Warner grew up together in Trinidad). King just wasn’t going to let his friend languish in jail for the rest of his life, although Warner had begged him to just leave him alone after a certain point. This film hit me harder, I believe, than “The Central Park Five,” because in “Crown Heights,” you saw one president after another, including President Ronald Reagan, President George H.W. Bush and President Bill Clinton, sanction laws that were designed to put an inordinate number of Black men and men of color in prison. The trial, jury and attorneys had been against Warner and now in the film, you could see the political and legal landscapes that were slowly disintegrating the threads that held together Black families across the country.
“Crown Heights” is a fantastic film. It is a shame that for now it is probably pegged as an independent film and will be hard to find at a local theatre. I saw it at Century 12 Evanston/CinéArts 6, but it is no longer playing there. It is worth it to check local listings for more information about distribution or streaming options. Check out the trailer here: https://youtu.be/JgrFRyMsWiY.