Critics used to dismiss socially conscious movies as well-meaning but unartistic (as when deriding director Stanley Kramer’s entire career for his concern with outdated issues such as brotherhood and interracial marriage). Yet social-justice movies now win automatic praise. Crown Heights is this week’s entry in the social-justice-movie contest, combining current social concerns with progressive sentiments. It’s a new genre: the docu-fantasy.
Crown Heights details the injustice Colin Warner suffered in 1989, when, at age 18, he was convicted for a murder he did not commit — but the movie rarely gets inside Warner’s mind, and its approach is too much of these times to make for great cinema. (The style comes from the radio program This American Life by Ira Glass — part of that network of liberal social narratives, from public radio to Mother Jones magazine.) Warner’s victimization — by chance and by a largely indifferent criminal-justice system — is told through a narrative that mixes anachronistic events and a fatalist perspective.
The film chronicles Warner’s life as a young petty thief (played by Lakeith Stanfield) and his romantic ambition; then it jumps back to show the mores of Caribbean immigrants in the working-class Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, with its desperate criminal underclass. There’s admirable veracity to this method, but director-screenwriter Matt Ruskin frames the turn of events and places dramatic emphasis in a way that is mostly meant to expose society’s unfairness.
It is only because Warner’s best friend, Carl King (Nnamdi Asomugha), devotes 20 years to pursuing an appeal and a release that the tragic story achieves a positive outcome. But Crown Heights doesn’t have that inspirational lift of a Stanley Kramer production (Home of the Brave, The Defiant Ones, Judgment at Nuremburg, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?). Ruskin’s docu-fantasy is not just an account of how a grievous wrong was righted — it makes sure to indict the failed system’s breach of faith. This isn’t necessarily effective (although the New York Times is quoted in ads as calling the movie “necessary”). Emotional impact is missing. Is there any way to feel good about Warner’s freedom after he’s lost the most productive years of his life — including two years in solitary confinement? Crown Heights indicates a cinematic détente with social-justice-warrior moralism. Ruskin’s sense of injustice overwhelms any joy about salvation.
Why is this so? Because contemporary filmmakers are not content with observing disorder or appreciating the complexity of social conflict. Their viewpoints are limited to condemnation and self-righteousness. Kramer, and his more artful peer Otto Preminger (Anatomy of a Murder, The Cardinal, Advise & Consent), would never make a movie as self-serving as this — or Citizenfour, Spotlight, Straight Outta Compton, The 13th, Snowden, or Detroit (which critics also deemed “necessary”) — because both filmmakers had more mature, experienced world views and an unbiased regard of character. Docu-fantasies, on the other hand, restrict storytelling and social reporting to predictable character types and partisan narratives.
Always sad-looking Stanfield (he was the junkie protégé in Miles Ahead and the Dave Chappelle–like zombie in Get Out) layers Warner’s victim myth with personal angst — a difficult balance to maintain in a biographical film. The effort is noteworthy, especially as it singles out Warner as a lost immigrant. He says of his fellow inmates, “Most of these prisoners know deep down they put themselves here” — an insight worthy of Short Eyes or Birdman of Alcatraz. But Ruskin doesn’t get much further into the culture of immigrant life, how it is torn between advancement and crime. The flashbacks feature a panoply of frightened young men who falsely testified against Warner while King is a never-tiring paragon of virtue. “If we keep going on technicalities, we not gonna get no riddim,” King laments. He also warmly refers to Warner as “Bred’dren” (Brother).
Contemporary filmmakers are not content with observing disorder or appreciating the complexity of social conflict. Their viewpoints are limited to condemnation and self-righteousness.
Crown Heights needs more such insight. Instead, its docu-fantasy style often rings as clichéd —from the dark NYC courtrooms to frequent prison visits by King and Warner’s family that happen in a snap. In the 1980s, I witnessed New York’s Columbus Circle as the site where dozens of inmates’ families regularly queued up for bus caravans taking them on the long trek to upstate prisons. Crown Heights skips over that common, wearing journey in its simplified story of Warner’s longing for justice. It’s the kind of exhausting detail sacrificed to social-justice propaganda. As in the scene of Warner’s prison wedding to his steadfast neighborhood love (Adriane Lenox), there’s no visual concept of such a moment or what it signifies. The movie never documents the distinct, profound human experience of injustice — the cinematic expression that made critics call Kramer corny. Is Crown Heights a work of humanist persuasion or is it merely motivated by politics?
— Armond White is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.