Fresh on the heels of Kathryn Bigelow's docudrama "Detroit" comes Matt Ruskin's civil rights procedural "Crown Heights" with Lakeith Stanfield as the protagonist Colin Warner. It falls during a rush of films depicting the abuse of power by police - the documentary "Whose Streets" about the police murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri recently opened.


The titular neighborhood of Crown Heights, in Brooklyn, has been the site of racial tension since the late 1960s when African Americans and West Indians began moving into the mostly Jewish area. The biggest blow up was the Crown Heights Riots of 1991 when a Hassidic Jew accidentally ran over black youths with his car.


Ruskin's film begins in 1980 with the shooting of a young man by a black teenager named Anthony Gibson (Luke Forbes) who was carrying out an act of revenge. However, Brooklyn police detective Cassel (Zach Grenier) coerced Gibson and an eyewitness to implicate Colin who was no where near the scene. But apparently Warner had previous encounters with the law for minor offenses; enough that they had his mug shot. That was all Cassel needed to arrest Warner for second degree murder.

Detective Cassel snatches up Gibson and another witness, Clarence Lewis (Skylan Brooks), getting both to identify Warner as the trigger man in a drive-by shooting. The murder, however was not a drive by; in fact, there was no car at all. Nevertheless, that is the case he presented.


As is typical of felony cases involving impoverished individuals, Warner is stuck with a public defender who proves to be totally useless even though the testimony by Gobson contradicted his police statement. The judge sentences Warner to 15-years to life in prison.


From this point the film splits time depicting Warner's life in prison and the ongoing efforts by his oldest friend Carl King (Nmandi Asomugha) to overturn the conviction. The efforst go on for years as King borrows money and takes second jobs to pay for a losing effort.

Two subplots involve romantic relationships between Warner and his girlfriend Antoinette (Natalie Paul) and King and his wife Briana (Marsha Stephanie Blake). Warner and Antoinette begin their relationship after he goes to prison; King and his wife encounter troubled waters because of his devotion to Warner.


Ruskin's decision to highlight the relationships could have been replaced by a clearer understanding about the neighborhood and the history of the racial tension. We are left wondering why Detective Cassel had such a fixation on convicting Warner. In fact we learn very little of Cassel; not even if he suffered any consequences.


Also suffering from lack of character development is Adriane Lenox's Grace - Warner's mother - who is lost and confused as to the how and why her son became caught up in the murder case. She is a fine veteran actress who can emote volumes with a simple facial expression.


Even Nnamdi Asomugha's character needed a bit more development especially he and Warner are two of the film's characters whose names were not changed. Gibson's real name was Norman Simmonds and Forbes never looks like he's only 15-years old!


Ruskin does manage to successfully blend the drama of prison life with a legal procedural while keeping it at just over one and a half hours. Ben Kutchins' camerawork captures believable emotions from the entire cast.


"Crown Heights" is an intriguing civil rights film even with the narrative shortcomings. Lakeith Stanford and Nnamdi Asomugha deliver believable performances as two Trinidadians mired in a biased system of racial injustice.   -- GEOFF BURTON