By Leslie C. Halpern
Through flashbacks, fantasy sequences, and two men’s interconnecting stories over a period of 21 years, this fact-based crime drama is elevated by exceptional performances. Adapted from an episode of the weekly public radio show This American Life on NPR, the story itself is all too common: a poor young black man is falsely accused of a crime, but lacks the money, knowledge, and connections to adequately fight the charges against him.
The story begins in the spring of 1980 when a black teenager is shot dead on the street in Flatbush, Brooklyn. Although most of the people in the community (comprised of Haitian and Jamaican immigrants) know the details of the crime, none are forthcoming to the police. In an effort to solve the case quickly, the cops round up a teenaged criminal from the area and offer him a lighter sentence if he swears to be an eye witness to the murder. Under pressure, the kid picks the mugshot of Colin Warner (Lakeith Stanfield), an 18-year-old car thief from nearby Crown Heights.
Wrongly Convicted of Murder
Although Colin has no involvement with the crime, he’s arrested, charged, and eventually convicted of driving the getaway car in the drive-by shooting (which wasn’t actually a drive-by shooting at all). The true murderer also is convicted as a co-defendant, but receives a light sentence because he’s a minor. At 18, Colin is sentenced as an adult and gets a 15-year sentence. Angry, shocked, and defiant, he refuses to confess or express remorse for a crime he did not commit. Though his resentful attitude is understandable throughout his 21 years in prison (extra time added for bad behavior), it doesn’t serve him well, as officials continue to pressure him for admission of guilt and punish him for refusing to comply.
Outside of prison, Colin’s best friend, Carl (Nnamdi Asomugha), struggles over the years to help exonerate his friend. Unfortunately he’s in the same situation as Colin was before the conviction. He’s an immigrant, low on funds, uneducated, and (unlike Colin) has a wife (Marsha Stephanie Blake) who resents the time and money spent on a family friend, rather than on their growing family. Colin’s own long-time love interest (Natalie Paul) promises to wait for him no matter how long he’s away from her.
21 Years in Prison
There’s a lot going on here with the two men, and the 21-year stretch of time is difficult to cover. Captions on the screen identify how many years pass as Colin waits in prison. To help speed the story along, writer-director Matt Ruskin uses flashbacks to show viewers what Colin is thinking, dreaming, and feeling. Fantasy sequences also depict his desire to be free to love and live outside the confines of prison. These artful touches (including quick cuts, extreme close-ups, and shaky altered images) get the point across quickly without the need for non-essential dialogue and scenes depicting the passage of time.
The entire cast seems committed to the task. Stanfield presents a believable three-dimensional character worthy of our concern and compassion, despite his earlier life of crime and violence born of frustration and injustice. Asomugha carries his side of the story well, also. The actor beautifully portrays his character’s strong persistence in his quest of justice for his friend, even at great personal expense and risk. Although some unpleasant stereotypes appear in the film (lazy and dishonest policemen; sleazy white attorneys and parole board members), the main characters appear well-rounded, reflecting strengths and weaknesses evident in all humanity.
- Based on a true story from 1980, an innocent young man from Crown Heights is wrongfully convicted of murder.
- Stars: Lakeith Stanfield, Nnamdi Asomugha, Natalie Paul, Bill Camp, Nestor Carbonell, Amari Cheatom, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Luke Forbes
- Writer-Director: Mark Ruskin
- Genre: Biography/Crime Drama
- Run Time: 99 minutes
- MPAA Rating: R (for language, some sexuality/nudity, and violence)