“Crown Heights” is the kind of movie with the right dose of drama and suspense, a strong storyline, and multi-dimensional characters.
Unfortunately, though, the movie is based on the real life experiences of a Caribbean immigrant living in Brooklyn who spent 20 years in prison for a crime he did not commit.
“You don’t have to add nothing, the drama is from my life story. What happened to me could have happened to anyone. That’s why the movie and telling my story is so important to me right now,” Warner, now 55, told NBC News. “What I want people to realize is that your life can be taken away in an instant if you don’t pay attention.”
In 1980, Warner was 18 years old and wrongfully accused of killing another teenager. At the time, Warner was on probation for a nonviolent offense. One of the witnesses of the shooting death identified Warner as the shooter, even though Warner had an alibi.
It was not only a case of mistaken identity but, for Warner and his best friend, Carl King, a situation rooted deeply in systemic racism. Even when witnesses recanted their story and the one guilty of the crime admitted privately to Warner that he was the guilty one; Warner’s lack of resources and his identity would serve to be enough to put him in prison.
“I do not want people to classify me as a murderer. Our name is all we have, our name is all we have control over,” he said. “I do still hold a little bit of anger for what happened to me, but I also realize that I have to rid myself of that anger. It is a process.”
For the two decades that Warner was in prison, King worked tirelessly to free his friend and clear his name.
“I do still hold a little bit of anger for what happened to me, but I also realize that I have to rid myself of that anger. It is a process.”
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Nnamdi Asomugha plays King in the movie.
“Slavery really didn’t end; it was just repurposed,” he told NBC News. “Ava Duvernay’s, ‘13th‘ shows us this. Brian Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative explains it perfectly. He says that we got segregation from slavery and from segregation we got mass incarceration. Colin’s story is part of that overall narrative.”
Playing King was not what Asomugha set out to do initially – he wanted to play Warner.
“I could relate to his story – as a teen I was arrested and wrongfully accused of things I did not do,” he said. “But those experiences came in handy playing Carl. I was able to channel the 16-year-old me, trying to free someone from his or her struggle – that way it was more powerful telling the story from Carl’s perspective.”
During one scene of the movie, Warner, played by Lakeith Stanfied, asks King, “You got your family, you got your life, why you still wasting your time on me?”
“He did not know what his purpose was at the time,” Asomugha said. “But he knew his friend was innocent and so he had to do something. When Colin was released, Carl said he had found his purpose.”
Practically by himself, King learned law and was able to help Warner get out of prison. In the process however, King gave up much of his own life – including his wife and family.
“Anytime you go through or do something for so long, and you lose your family and job, when you get that payoff in the end you know every bit was worth it,” Asomugha added. “You find a way to keep doing it. It is what has fueled him as he has now committed himself to freeing others.”
While they did not set out to make a political movie, Asomugha said they could not help it.
“We realized we could not avoid it. With this president, and presidents before him, sharing this message of being tough on crime, more prisons and taking away parole, it was necessary to shine a light on these injustices taking place,” he said. “We are in a country right now where some feel as though there is either no hope or you can’t do anything on your own. Carl, who is a real person, by himself, for two decades, basically became a lawyer and was able to get Colin released from prison. One man can make a difference and you really can galvanize a community.
Warner sees the movie as a catalyst in making people believe in themselves.
“Right now as a people, we are stuck. But if you stand up for what you believe in, love each other, and support each other – if I can remind Black people of that then my 21 years in prison can be for a reason, I can understand it better, and I can rest better at night,” he said. “I am just a little spoke in a wheel. We have to come together, we are the people who elect the officials into office. If we don’t hold these people accountable, these sort of things will continue to happen.”
This, he said, is power.
“We have power within ourselves. This movie is about movement,” he added. “If there is no movement, there is no progress. We need to move, help each other along the way, and create something different.”