Lakeith Stanfield’s expressive performance shows the horrors of the prison system in “Crown Heights,” based on a true story. (Courtesy IFC Films)

Lakeith Stanfield’s expressive performance shows the horrors of the prison system in “Crown Heights,” based on a true story. (Courtesy IFC Films)

Lakeith Stanfield’s star turn elevates ‘Crown Heights’

If anyone is on the verge of becoming a breakout star, it’s Lakeith Stanfield. His role in “Crown Heights” could put him over the top.

Lanky of frame and with deeply expressive eyes, Stanfield, in just a few years, has appeared in such quality films as “Short Term 12,” “Selma,” “Dope,” “Straight Outta Compton” (as Snoop Dogg) and “Get Out,” and on the acclaimed TV series “Atlanta.”

In “Crown Heights,” his biggest part yet, he plays Colin Warner, a Trinidad-born, Brooklyn-raised man who was inexplicably arrested for a 1980 murder he had nothing to do with.

Based on a true story, the movie shows his innocence with an air-tight alibi: He was stealing a car to pick up his mother’s TV from the repair shop.

This is no clever Fritz Lang film noir about a man wrongly accused. Colin is run through the system with more brute force than efficiency. Where the facts don’t quite fit, they are violently crushed and crammed until a conviction can be made.

On the outside, Colin’s best friend Carl King (Nnamdi Asomugha) works tirelessly to get him out, even training to become a process server.

Why does Carl do this? His response to Colin in one scene makes it all clear: “It could be me in here.”

Nevertheless, the movie, written and directed by Matt Ruskin, does skimp on matters of importance.

In one scene, Carl forgets to pick up his daughter from school, and in another, his wife (Marsha Stephanie Blake) discovers that he has taken out a line of credit to pay for a lawyer. Nothing comes of these moments. There’s no time for follow-up.

Colin even manages to get married while serving his 21 unjust years, to a childhood friend, Antoinette (Natalie Paul), but, of this relationship, the movie likewise conveys more details than romance.

Colin’s predicament was most certainly based on race, a dramatic illustration of the themes in Ava Duvernay’s recent documentary “13th.” But while the movie acknowledges the general inequality of blacks and whites in the system, it never preaches or lays anything on too thick. It simply allows things to be.

The heart of the movie comes from Stanfield, aging 20 years, and using his powerful eyes to express the sheer, hopeless horror of his situation.

When a guard cuts short Colin’s phone call to his grandma on her birthday, it’s hard to see the moment as anything but vicious and cruel.

He is a human being, sensitive and loving, but trapped and nearly destroyed. With his profound performance, Stanfield brings “Crown Heights” inside an unimaginable human experience.

Crown Heights
Three stars
Starring Lakeith Stanfield, Nnamdi Asomugha, Natalie Paul, Bill Camp
Written and directed by Matt Ruskin
Rated R
Running time 1 hour, 40 minutesBill CampCrown HeightsLakeith StanfieldMatt RuskinMovies and TVNatalie PaulNnamdi Asomugha

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