‘Crown Heights’ — a story of wrongful conviction that plays it too safe Stories of black men victimized by the prison system have their tropes, but the characters here don’t feel real

Six years into a 21-year stay in a New York state prison, Colin Warner, the lead character of the new film Crown Heights, is writing a letter.

“Most prisoners know deep down they put themselves here,” he writes. “But I don’t have that comfort.”

Written and directed by Matt Ruskin, Crown Heights uses a 2005 This American Life episode as the basis for its story, charting Warner’s path from freedom to state-sanctioned captivity to freedom once again. The real-life story is harrowing: Brooklyn, New York, police badgered witnesses into falsely fingering Warner for a crime he didn’t commit, and prosecutors used the alternative facts squeezed from those compromised teenage witnesses to send an innocent man to prison for second-degree murder. Once there, he ended up spending more time behind bars than the man who actually committed the crime.

Transposed to a feature-length film, however, Warner’s story loses its gasp-worthy qualities. The film just isn’t biting enough to make Warner a mascot for the race-based injustice that pervades the American criminal justice system.

Instead, it’s a series of prison tropes held together with flashbacks and news clips of American presidents espousing how tough they are on crime. We see Warner (Lakeith Stanfield) struggle to comprehend the loss of agency over his own body as he’s checked into prison, and how he discovers every friendly gesture from a fellow prisoner carries a price. Crown Heights follows Warner’s life from the day he was arrested in 1980 until the day he’s finally released but does little to advance the narrative that black men are systematically victimized by mass incarceration.

Perhaps that’s because Warner, who is West Indian, doesn’t connect his plight with that of American-born black men. If that’s the case, Crown Heights doesn’t effectively communicate that point, and the clearest indication that it’s trying to is the one line from Warner’s letter about prisoners knowing that they put themselves upstate.

Lakeith Stanfield as Colin Warner and Natalie Paul as Antoinette in ‘Crown Heights.’

Courtesy of IFC Films

We see Warner enter a relationship with a woman, Antoinette (Natalie Paul), whom he eventually marries while imprisoned. But lost are the details that would illustrate how their relationship went from platonic to sexual. Why does Antoinette like Colin so much? What does she feel about him, aside from anguish and pity about his imprisonment? It’s almost impossible to say, because we don’t see it. What’s missing are the small, intimate events of daily life that can slow a film down but are necessary for viewers to connect with its characters.

Nnamdi Asomugha as Carl King in ‘Crown Heights.’

Courtesy of IFC Films

Former NFL defensive back Nnamdi Asomugha, husband of actress Kerry Washington, co-stars as Carl King, Warner’s friend who never stops working to exonerate him. We see King’s wife get frustrated that King is dedicating so many resources to freeing his friend that he stops paying attention to his own family. But it’s tough to get a sense of how all of these figures are coping with their lots. In the course of making too many safe choices, Crown Heights ends up not saying much at all.

As with previous roles in Short Term 12 and Get Out, much of what Stanfield brings to the screen he communicates through his eyes. Stanfield’s presence introduces a sense of calm and introspection when everything around him is clearly unstable, but Asomugha doesn’t provide enough of a contrast for Stanfield’s quiet suffering.

The story of Colin Warner is a tale of someone’s humanity being disregarded and discarded. Yet Crown Heights fails to push past that initial hook to communicate much else. The inclusion of Clinton, Bush and Reagan is a start, but Ruskin fails to connect their tough-on-crime policies to Warner’s life. In the film’s last political interlude, when the audience has been primed to expect to see the face of George H. W. Bush, Ruskin uses footage of New York Gov. George Pataki instead. This decision only muddles the message. Are these powerful white men responsible for Warner’s imprisonment, or are they mile markers for the time he’s served? Or both?

There are few conclusions to draw from the film aside from “wrongful imprisonment is bad” — and, well, that should be obvious. It’s a shame that beyond that, Crown Heights doesn’t have a whole lot to say.

Daily Dose: 8/24/17 Cardi B is officially in takeover mode

Everyone, I have good news and I have bad news. First the bad news: I didn’t win Powerball. The good news: You might have! There goes my shot to become a professional sports owner.

We’ve seen a lot of lists about the number of quarterbacks who have signed in the NFL since Colin Kaepernick opted out. But have you thought about another number regarding what he was kneeling for and speaking out against in this country? As it turns out, police have killed more than 200 black Americans since Kaep first decided to protest. Think about that. So, whether or not you agree with what he and many NFL players have chosen to do, those numbers regarding law enforcement are not good.

You all know how I feel about Cardi B. As far as I’m concerned, she saved hip-hop this summer with her banger “Bodak Yellow,” which goes so hard it’s almost hard to believe. For those of us who’ve been fans for a while, her ability to handle the big stage is not a huge surprise. She’s been about this superstar life from the beginning. She also bought a Bentley — and she doesn’t even drive. When it comes to making it in New York, there are many levels of success. Getting recognized by The New York Times is certainly one of them.

Let’s take a trip around Hollywood. You might know Yvonne Orji from her role on HBO’s Insecure. You might not know that in her real life, she’s actually a virgin and plans on staying so until marriage. Moving to the basic cable package, Lakeith Stanfield, while promoting his new Netflix movie, said that you can expect season two of FX’s Atlanta to tackle today’s political climate as a subject matter. Good. Lastly, from the “truth is stranger than fiction, sort of” file, the guy who played Suge Knight in Straight Outta Compton caught an assault charge.

There was a half-second earlier this week in which I considered buying the fight. I don’t know what came over me, but in a moment of weakness, I thought, I don’t want to waste my time running all over town trying to find a fun environment in which to watch it. Heck, I’ll get it and if someone wants to come over and pitch in, sure. But after watching that super low-wattage presser Wednesday, I’m definitely out. It seems these two can only go outrageous, vulgar yelling match or near silence. No in between, alas. Mayweather-McGregor is losing steam.

Free Food

Coffee Break: As a child, Chuck E. Cheese was a fun, if not slightly terrifying, experience. Why the latter? Because as much as they were supposed to entertain us, that animatronic band was absolutely a scary situation if you were a kid. Now they’re phasing it out, to which I say good riddance.

Snack Time: People get drunk and drown all the time. People get drunk and crash cars all the time. Not a lot of people get drunk and then get swallowed by a sinkhole on the beach and get buried alive. This story is nuts.

Dessert: The new Action Bronson/Rick Ross track is pretty smooth, kiddos.

 

With the new movie ‘Crown Heights,’ Nnamdi Asomugha relies on everything he learned from football The former superstar cornerback won Sundance with the story of a man who went to prison for a murder he didn’t commit

Nnamdi Asomugha is taking a quick break.

There’s a photographer, and the photographer’s assistant is setting up a new orangish background. Asomugha, in a gray Converse crewneck and slim-fit black pants, overhears a conversation that’s disdainful of grimy movie theaters and movie theater chains.

He jumps in, makes a funny face and shakes his head adamantly in disagreement. Asomugha loves movie theaters. Always has. When he wasn’t on a football field — the former Cal Bear and first-round draft pick spent his first eight National Football League seasons with the Oakland Raiders — he would sneak into theaters and sit there all day, soaking it up, consuming content and daring to dream of something beyond academics and athletics.

At the Manhattan photo shoot, the Pro Bowler gives a sly smile. This is a full-circle moment.

For 11 seasons, Asomugha was one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL. After his years with the Raiders and stints with the Philadelphia Eagles and the San Francisco 49ers, he walked away from the NFL in 2013 at age 32 via a one-day contract with the Oakland Raiders so that he could officially retire in the city in which he came of age. A true shutdown corner, Asomugha retired with 15 interceptions, 80 passes defensed and two sacks.

Oakland Raiders’ Nnamdi Asomugha (21) breaks up pass intended for Dallas Cowboys’ Keyshawn Johnson (19).

AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez

But if you don’t know his name for those reasons, don’t worry, soon you will — and it’ll have absolutely nothing to do with football.

Asomugha is an actor. And a producer. And not because he’s indulging an ego-driven post-athletic career fantasy realized through his ability to cut a big enough check and buy his way onto a set. No. As an actor, Asomugha expertly brings to the screen the story of a man we all should know about — and as a producer, he’s brilliant at finding and financing stories that need to be told.

His Crown Heights, which opens in select New York theaters this week and has a wide release next week, is the true story of Colin Warner, a Trinidadian resident of the Brooklyn neighborhood Crown Heights who was wrongly accused and convicted of murder. Warner served 21 years for the crime, while his best friend, played by Asomugha, tirelessly worked to prove his innocence.

He also happens to be married to Kerry Washington (Scandal, Cars 3, Confirmation), and like his wife of four years — they have two children, Isabelle and Caleb — Asomugha rarely speaks publicly about their marriage or partnership, preferring instead to focus on the work. And it’s understandable, especially in his case, considering that his ambition to become an actor dates back years — before he married his wife in 2013 even, and years before she became famous. The furthest thing from Asomugha’s mind is attaching himself, and this full deep dive into a new career, to his famous and famously talented wife, who happens to be one of very few black women in Hollywood who can consistently commandeer mainstream magazine covers.

Asomugha’s focus is on this second act — and on getting people to see beyond his storied football career. Especially now that he’s doing the thing that ignites him as much as covering wide receivers used to.

“Then we went onstage to perform. And I felt the rush. I loved every bit of it. It was the moment where I said, ‘Oh, this is what gets me close’ …”

“I went to the Los Angeles Kings game,” he said, “and the national anthem started playing. Anytime the anthem comes on … I was fresh off of leaving football, and was just really taken by the moment. There was this [feeling] of, ‘I’m not going to be able to hear that and be ready to go on the field anymore.’ We watched the Kings win the championship, and then I went and called one of my former teammates, Charles Woodson, and said something like, ‘I need that feeling again, of getting ready to go out on the field. With the crowd and all of that.’ I was missing that.”

His friend had advice. “He said, ‘You have to find something that gives you a feeling close to that, because you’re never going to get that again. You’re never going to be able to go out on the field and get 70,000 people screaming when they announce your name. But look for whatever gets you closest to that point.’ ”

Asomugha said that maybe three or four months later, he was in New York doing a reading of a play at the Circle in the Square Theatre. “When you’re backstage,” he said, “and you’re coming out with the actors, you go through a tunnel before you get out there. And then you stop right before you go onto the stage. It was just a reading. But I had that moment. I was back in the tunnel. Then we went onstage to perform. And I felt the rush. I loved every bit of it. It was the moment where I said, ‘Oh, this is what gets me close. …”


Asomugha was born in 1981 in Lafayette, Louisiana, to Igbo parents. He loathes the term “Hollywood” as an adjective. He mock-scowls — hard — when he hears it being said. Asomugha was reared in Los Angeles, the entertainment industry nestled practically in his backyard. But “going Hollywood” is akin to someone saying you’re fake. Or out for self. Or perhaps more mystified by the bling than the hard work. “That’s not,” he said, “me.”

André Chung for The Undefeated

Who he is: a guy who came up in a Nigerian family that celebrated academic excellence and embraced the high arts. The creative space has always had a strong hold on him. It came to him naturally, more so, even, than his athletic prowess. “I come from a performing family,” he said. “My parents are Nigerian, and their parents and their parents — and it’s all about performance in their culture, you know. The music. The dancing … you’re told to stand out at family gatherings and perform in some sort of way. You’re just kind of born into it,” he said. “Me and my siblings … were forced to get up in the church and do some sort of play for the rest of the church. We’re like 7, 8 years old. It’s just what you had to do. It was always sort of in my blood.”

But the performing arts had to be a quiet passion. Especially once he got older. Football was king. So was basketball. And he played both at Narbonne High School in Harbor City, California.

“We took piano lessons. And I remember going to football practice — me and my brother. We were late to practice one time, and … I remember the coach standing us up in front of the whole team and just saying, ‘Nnamdi’s late, guys, and I wanted to tell you, he had a piano lesson.’ Everyone’s laughing, and I’m just sitting there like …” He shakes his head at the memory. “That stuff wasn’t cool at all.”

“Football taught me so much just about life,” he said. “The confidence of me being onstage or performing in some sort way … that was nurtured … and blossomed because of football.”

He shifted. Went full throttle into football, leaving the creative arts, and his equally passionate desire to excel in them, behind. It wasn’t until years later in college — he attended and played for the University of California, Berkeley — that he was reminded it was possible to live in and do well in both worlds.

“It was my junior year at Cal. A [teammate] of mine came up to us after practice like, ‘Hey, guys, I’m doing a performance down at Wheeler [Hall].’ I don’t even know what the play was. Like Porgy and Bess or something. Immediately I started making fun of him. You make fun of someone when they start talking about this, especially in the football world. I got all the guys to make fun. Like, ‘This guy, he’s doing a play!’ We went there to clown him,” Asomugha said. “[But] I’ll never forget he was brilliant onstage. I will never forget it … because it was one of the moments where I was like, ‘Oh, no, this is cool. This is OK, even though we play football.’ He opened my mind up.”

Cal Berkeley rid Asomugha of his own boundaries. It was transformative. He loved football, and knew he’d make a career out of it, but he also knew that when football was over, he’d transition into something more creative. And it was football, ironically — even with that early atmosphere of being anti anything that didn’t scream hypermasculinity — that gave Asomugha the confidence to pursue the creative arts. He’s appeared in the Friday Night Lights television series, as well as on The Game and Leverage; he collected his first credit in 2008.

“Football taught me so much just about life,” he said. “The confidence of me being onstage or performing in some sort way … that was nurtured … and blossomed because of football. Just being able to do things that you didn’t think you can do, that you can’t turn around. You have to do it and doing it in front of thousands, and then millions, that are watching. You’re onstage. It’s not that I don’t have the fear, it’s just that I know how to handle the fear, you know? I can have the fear and still think.”


For the new Crown Heights, Asomugha didn’t make it easy on himself.

He helps tell the real story of Colin Warner. In 1980, Warner was wrongly convicted of murder. In the film, which is based on a This American Life episode, Asomugha portrays Warner’s best friend Carl King, the man who devoted his life to proving his friend’s innocence, and to getting him out of prison. Lakeith Stanfield portrays Warner, and the film is an important moment for both actors. Stanfield pulls off an emotionally complex role, and Asomugha displays impressive dramatic chops.

Nnamdi Asomugha as Carl King in the new film “Crown Heights.”

Courtesy of Amazon Studios

“One of the interesting things about Nnamdi is how calm and assertive he is,” said executive producer Jonathan Baker, who founded I Am 21 with Asomugha. “He’s an extraordinarily even-keeled individual. His experience with sports created a sense of get-up-and-do-it-again. The discipline. People respond to him as a natural leader, and it’s evident in everything that we do.”

Asomugha even nails a very distinct Trinidadian accent. “He took it seriously,” Carl King himself said of Asomugha’s portrayal. “He’d call me and ask me questions. ‘Am I bothering you?’ It seemed like he just wanted to do the best job he could have done. And he told me he wanted to do the story justice. It’s a deep story. It’s not one of the stories that you can make up. This is a story about an injustice that was done to this kid in 1980. He had to endure 21 years of the very worst. And portraying me? I’m very pleased.”

The film premiered at Sundance earlier this year and was a critical darling and a fan favorite, nabbing the Audience Award. And Asomugha was ready for the moment, good and bad, both as a producer and a co-star of the film.

“This is cool. This is OK, even though we play football. It’s OK to live in both worlds.”

“I’ve played for the Raiders and the Eagles,” Asomugha said before laughing, “Those fans will prepare you for any event that you have to go through in life! I’m able to explore and just take risks, and just really go after something that I’m passionate about. I can take whatever’s going to be thrown at me.”

That preparedness was crucial.

“I didn’t bat an eye. Football taught me was how important the preparation is before the actual moment. And then when you get into the moment, being able to throw away the preparation and just hope that it’s in you somewhere, that it stayed in you. And that’s what I think with this,” he said. “The project came [along, and it] didn’t feel daunting. I wasn’t nervous. I wasn’t like, ‘Oh, my goodness, I can’t believe this!’ I was like, ‘Oh, I’ve trained for this. I’m excited. I can’t wait to go into a character [and] put something on film! And then it got such a great reception at Sundance, so I was happy.”


There’s more coming from Asomugha. He’s hell-bent on bringing more stories like Crown Heights, which will be co-distributed by Amazon Studios and IFC, to life. Asomugha’s company, I Am 21, is prepping to shoot the highly anticipated Harriet Tubman biopic. It’ll be an important film: Tony winner Cynthia Erivo is starring, and it tells the story of the former slave-turned-abolitionist who worked tirelessly as an Underground Railroad conductor, nurse and spy.

The plan is to start shooting sometime this fall, and Asomugha said the film falls right in line with the mission of I Am 21.

“There’s an element of true story, an element of stories that connect to social issues that effect some sort of change in the world,” he said. “There’s also fun stories that aren’t true, but just have amazing characters at the center. Whether it’s a woman or it’s a person of color, whether it’s a person [who is] just ‘other’ … telling the underdog stories, and how they’ve risen out of that.”

And as for the future of his own acting career? He’s been ready. “I’m the type of person that always has a goal of greatness,” he said. “My mindset is, I can take all the chances in the world. I don’t put stress on myself. What I do is enjoy preparation. It’s just who I am.

André Chung for The Undefeated

“There was a long stretch where practice was much harder than games for me. I felt a level of dominance and being in the zone, for years. Game after game, after game — practice was always harder. So, if there’s any level of stress in this, it’s not being onstage, it’s not the moment that the camera turns on. It’s the preparation that comes before that.”

The ‘Incredible Jessica James’ and the necessary arrogance of black women In both Jessica Williams’ new movie and ‘Girls Trip,’ black women reaffirm their own value

In The Incredible Jessica James, available on Netflix starting Friday, Jessica Williams plays a 25-year-old playwright who’s just gotten out of a relationship. When we meet her, she’s already grown impatient with the meaningless small talk of the dating scene.

In a line she improvised during a take, Williams-as-James tells a potential suitor, “I’d rather have my period nonstop for a year than continue this portion of the conversation.”

“I think we really just wanted to portray a female character that is unapologetic,” Williams, the former Daily Show correspondent, said in a phone interview. “Like, she’ll apologize for things she does wrong, but we didn’t want her to be like, ‘Sorry I’m alive!’ I feel like oftentimes, women can be written in a way where they’re really apologetic. I wanted to play this character … where she really gets to drive her narrative. There’s a line where she’s like, ‘I know I’m dope. Everybody likes me. I know I’m dope.’

Chris O’Dowd and Jessica Williams in a scene from ‘The Incredible Jessica James.’

Courtesy of Netflix

“We wanted to be like, well, what if a woman had self-confidence and the crux of the movie wasn’t about her figuring out self-confidence? That narrative has been done, and we wanted to try something a little different.”

That quality of self-confidence links Williams in an interesting way with Regina Hall, who stars in the raunchy comedy Girls Trip, which opened last weekend (aside from the fact that they both worked with Jessica James writer-director Jim Strouse in the 2015 romantic comedy People Places Things).

We see both characters, Williams in The Incredible Jessica James and Hall in Girls Trip, talking themselves up. They give themselves little verbal boosts, even though they’re at different points in their lives.

Hall plays a woman for whom confidence should be a sure thing. Her character, Ryan Pierce, is 40-something and firmly established in her career as a writer and lifestyle expert, a sort of Arianna Huffington-Oprah hybrid. But she’s also a woman used to lifting herself up, and her go-to mantra, especially in moments of vulnerability is “I am smart, I am beautiful, I am powerful.”

Girls Trip and The Incredible Jessica James aren’t the only projects that make a point to show this affirmation of self. There are the sticky notes of encouragement that Mary Jane Paul (Gabrielle Union) leaves sprinkled around her house for herself in the BET series Being Mary Jane. There are the confidence-boosting raps that Issa Dee (Issa Rae) spits to herself in bathroom mirrors on HBO’s Insecure. Even my own sister, who is one of the most confident, capable, self-possessed women I know, has a note scribbled to herself on her bathroom mirror. It says simply: “You got this!”

This confidence can seem a bit incongruous for the Jessica James character at times. Although her day job is teaching theater and playwriting to school-age children, she can’t find a theater company or a fellowship that wants to produce her plays. She writes at a desk in front of a wall filled with rejection letters but never lets professional success determine her self-worth. That’s not an easy lesson to learn. And when you consider that Jessica James is 25 (Williams is about to turn 28), it’s pretty inspiring.

There’s a scene in which James is negotiating a hookup with Boone (Chris O’Dowd). Jessica is trying to charm her way into his apartment after their second date. They’ve already slept together on the first one, but Boone, who is several months removed from divorcing his first wife, wants to take things slow.

Jessica has a different idea about what should happen.

“Good night,” says Boone.

“Really?” she responds. “Boone. Boone. Boone. Boone. I’m a unicorn. That’s gotta mean somethin’.”

Sarah Jones (as herself) and Jessica James (Jessica Williams) meet for the first time at a playwriting retreat in ‘The Incredible Jessica James.’

Courtesy of Netflix

Boone relents, because really, who’s going to turn down Jessica? “We can always say good night in the morning!” she says cheerfully.

I asked Williams if there is any additional meaning in the fact that the woman we’re watching live her life without unnecessary apology is black.

“I think sometimes, when you’re trying or not, being black can be political,” Williams said. “And I think in this particular movie, it’s very valid to have movies where race is discussed — and that needs to happen more — but I think it’s progressive as well to have movies where race isn’t discussed and the character just gets to sort of exist. There’s interracial dating happening, and while it’s not discussed, it’s still interesting because she is a black woman. I think it’s important and also not necessarily majorly important to this story in particular.”

James’ blackness doesn’t announce itself in Jessica James, which takes place in New York. She lives in “deep, deep, deeeeeeep Bushwick,” as she says in the film — not, say, Bedford-Stuyvesant or Crown Heights. Her ex-boyfriend Damon (Lakeith Stanfield) designs cellphone cases for a living. There’s an unspoken irony in having the film’s lead be black while her best friend is white, a nifty subversion of the “black best friend” trope. On top of that, the white best friend’s name is Tasha (Noël Wells). Whether it was intentional or not, I found it clever and I totally snickered at it.

A rhythm and a trust develop between actresses and the writer-directors who know how to exploit their comedic sweet spots. There’s Leslie Mann and Judd Apatow (it helps that they’re married to one another), Melissa McCarthy and Paul Feig, Madeline Kahn and Mel Brooks, and Hall and director Malcolm D. Lee. We may be witnessing the fruits of a similar creative partnership in Williams and Strouse. Strouse is comfortable with Williams improvising lines, and the result is a character who speaks in a voice that feels completely natural.

“We work well together because Jim is very thoughtful and he thinks about things before he says them. He’s a fan of mine, and he has been for a while, and I’m a fan of his,” Williams said. “But he really likes my podcast Two Dope Queens [with Phoebe Robinson] and my work on the Daily Show, and so he’s always been really respectful. He’s just a great writer. I’m sensitive, and it’s really nice to work with him.”

But I think Strouse sees something in Williams as a black woman, even if he doesn’t scream it in his scripts, the same way he saw something in the talented Hall. There’s a power in seeing a self-aware black woman on screen who simply proceeds through life like she hasn’t been defeated by it, like she still feels she can make a difference, like she still believes that the world is hers.

Maybe that’s why so many black women spend so much time telling ourselves how wonderful we are: It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more we say, “I’m smart and beautiful and powerful,” the more we insist that we’re “unicorns,” the more we make it so.

Lakeith Stanfield introduces ‘LaZercism’ Are you suffering from racial glaucoma?

“How are we supposed to do our jobs, if we can’t even see?”

Those are the words of an actor playing the role of one of the police officers involved in that 2015 incident near Dallas, where authorities broke up a pool party on video. You might recall that classic for the barrel roll memes that came out of it, but for the 15-year-old girl who was pulled to the ground by her hair, it was traumatizing. She ended up suing the city, and the officer was never charged.

Incidents like this are exactly what actor Lakeith Stanfield is tackling in his new sketch-not-quite-comedy video that he’s released called LaZercism: in short, laser eye surgery that attacks racism at its core, through your vision. If only it were so easy. The entirety of the short takes on the feel of an infomercial, which makes it feel like it might have been left on the Atlanta cutting-room floor. Then again, the concept of the joke is something directly out of the Get Out playbook.

But the very premise of the bit is fascinating. Written and directed by Shaka King, it’s worth your time.