Most films are seen as an escape. A chance to explore unknown universes, meet larger than life characters and bend the laws of reality. But some of the most effective and powerful of films are those based solely on truth and real life stories. Crown Heights shook the Sundance Film Festival Monday night by telling the tragic true story of the injustice against Colin Warner.

Warner was wrongly tried and convicted of 2nd degree murder and sentenced to a potential life sentence in prison. Warner maintained his innocence and, mostly due to not admitting to a crime he didn’t commit, was refused parole and spent 21 years of his life wrongly imprisoned.

Lakeith Stanfield plays Warner and brings an immense level of heart and innocence to a man so let down by this world and the system. Stanfield has been doing incredible work since his feature debut Short Term 12 in 2013 and lately with his hilarious work in the FX series Atlanta, but Stanfield takes it to another level with his portrayal of Warner.

Nnamdi Asomugha is best remembered as a star American Football player, but is sensational as  Carl King. King was Warner’s best friend and the man who refused to believe Warner’s guilty verdict and risked losing everything to prove his innocence. You see Asomugha’s talent grow in the film and by the halfway point of the film it is clear that Asomugha is just as much a top level actor as he was an athlete.

Natalie Paul is a near revelation as well as Autoinette, an old friend of Warner’s who helps fight for his innocence and in the process she becomes his wife. The strength she displays in the scenes where Warner begins to break down and give up on his fight is staggering. Paul’s performance is just as powerful as the real woman she portrays.

crown heights

The story of the these three incredible heroes was brought to life in a 2005 episode of “This American Life.” The real life story is of Warner who in 1980 was falsely accused of participating in a drive by shooting which murdered a young New York man. He was tried alongside another man, who was the actual killer but refused to admit it and chose to bring Warner down with him even though the two had never met or seen each other before. What followed was a classic tale of injustice and rush to judgement. Despite the fact of non credible witnesses, no murder weapon or any evidence incriminating Warner, Colin was tried and convicted of second degree murder and sentenced to 15 years to life.

Over the next 21 years Warner, King and Antoinette searched for any avenue of a potential appeal or grounds for a mistrial. After thousands of dollars, inept attorneys and every possible obstacle, a near miracle occurs and Warner finally catches the break he so deserves.

Writer and director Matt Ruskin has an incredible amount of material to draw from to tell this story. Ruskin does an amazing job of pulling truly moving performances from his actors and telling the stories of these three heroes in beautiful, well paced fashion. The strength of the performances and subject matter at time almost overshadow the elements of the story and how it is told. It is probably a great choice to not let directorial style and excessive creativity get in the way of what this film is about: a great injustice.

This film at the heart is meant to serve as a tribute to Warner, King and Antoinette. It is heartbreaking and inspiring at the same time. The fact that these people existed and survived these impossible circumstances is astounding. This is an incredibly important story and a film that needs to be seen.