The film Crown Heights debuted to a lauded reception at the Sundance Film Festival, for its dramatization of the injustice that befell an eighteen-year old Colin Warner–a young black man blamed for the shooting death of Mario Hamilton. Crown Heights, uses Colin Warner as a vessel to depict the detriment of wrongful incarceration, ignoring the troubling reality that incarcerations as imposed onto the black collective are inherently wrong. White male writer and director Matt Ruskin, takes a slither of the black experience and attempts to pass a skinny slice off as the entire pie. The result is of course an insult, with a few moments of redeeming footage.
The film succeeds in depicting a strong portrait of brotherly love between Carl King and Colin Warner. Their relationship and familial bond illustrates that humans need not share blood to be family. In fact, Warner receives the most support from non-familial members of his community, one of which eventually becomes his wife. Moreover, while failing to issue depth to these portrayals,, the film does display multiple facets of black love despite omitting the word “black”–but we will get to this later. Thus, the resounding image displayed in the film is that it takes a village to free a black man, but not even this village is enough to free blacks from the imprisonment of the white gaze.
Specifically, he black experience as narrated by whites is cognitively dissonant as the white director and writer attempts to paint himself as anti racist, but in seizing a black narrative as his own, performs the very racism their project supposedly confronts.
The white perception of blacks is also inherently reduced in a racist gaze. Let us recall Otto Preminger’s Carmen (1954), as an example. Despite the beauty of the actors and actresses, each character exists without a back story or depth. The black character, as a manifestation of white perception, exists as one-dimensional. This lack of development is merely a single void consistent in black narratives told by whites. Other components missing from white conjured portrayals of blacks are:
- Context: The white gaze fails to encompass the black body in a de-niggerized state. This is perhaps best illustrated in the story’s failure to encompass any of Colin’s life prior to Mario’s murder. The same is said for every other black character. This depiction mirrors the general perception of blackness. Namely the implication that black life began and ended with slavery.
This single dimension functions to place white conquest at the center of black identity, a self-serving and narcissistic perception common of the racial psychopath. The depiction of Colin was also quite underwhelming. Namely, the line
“Most of these people deep down know they put themselves in here. I don’t have that comfort.”
This line stayed with me long after it was stated because it suggests that in general the Black “criminal” deserves his or her sentence. Are there blacks, that believe this? Yes, the film depicts the ugly truth that Colin’s mother too questioned his innocence.
However, what would have elevated the film from good to great is the depiction of other wrongfully convicted blacks. Instead the film solely focuses on Colin. The singularity of said depiction functions to suggest that Colin’s atrocity is an anomaly not a commonality–deeming this depiction an oversimplification of the complexities of blackness.
- An Inability to Confront White Evil in its Totality: It is nothing short of fascinating to see whites display members of their collective as mean, curt, or even gauche, and think that this is enough to encompass the totality of white evil that started centuries ago and continues to bleed into the present.
Due to the empathetic deficit of the racial psychopath, displaying the true extent of white evil is simply impossible to a collective who cannot feel the true impact of their ancestors. To this, many will counter by declaring the time gap as casting an understandable dissonance between whites existing in this contemporary space and their ancestors. The same space and time exists between blacks and their Abducted ancestors, yet we remember and reflect their struggles each and every day we live above a ground they toiled and to which they eventually became. No, this memory and reflection is not a conscious part of every black person’s life, but whether implicit or explicit–the black body exists in the image of those who have come before them.
- Omitting the Black: It’s also an insult that race is entirely omitted from the film. The word “black” is never mentioned in the film. Rather the film’s way of addressing blackness is through ethnicity. However, even the migrant experience is dwarfed by the white man’s portrayal. By dwarfed I mean that life in Trinidad is limited to stills that attempt to be poignant, but are empty instead. In examining the migrant experience, it is essential that it is imperative that films depicting the migrant journey encompass the fantasy the prompts their migration to a land they believed could transform them into a millionaire or at least a thousand-aire, but instead only wished to transform them into a nigger in the same manner they did the abducted Africans centuries prior. Thus, the enslavement does not begin in a judicial conviction, but the conviction that leads blacks beyond America to believe that life as a black person is “better” here. It is the systemic coercion that urges migrant blacks to flee towards what they conceive to be change, rather than foment change where they are–this too is an indirect5 facet of oppression rarely acknowledged or even considered in the discussion of migrant blacks.
- Lacking Inspiration: The racial psychopath may tell an abridged version of the black narrative for profit, but is simply unable to provide images, dialogue, or scenery to prompt the black collective to unlock let alone acknowledge the mental chains clasped on the black cerebellum as a means to puppeteer the black body. These films are intended for a white audience who will use the enclosed information to cultivate a convincing performance of liberalism without attacking the totality of whiteness. Films like Crown Heights, The Help, Detroit, and other white attempts to narrate the black experience, function to inform the white collective of black injustice while emphasizing that said injustice results from a few bad apples. These films function to suggest that whites are inherently good, and that the white audiences are good just by watching the film.
- Unable to Omit the White Savior Figure: Although failed by disinterested and incompetent white lawyers who treated a black man’s life with the same disregard as the penitentiary system, a white couple at a start-up practice redeems the white collective and aids Carl King in the twenty year plight to free his childhood friend. This depiction implies that every black dream needs white wings to fly.
In closing, the film hurt me. It hurt me to see yet another a deceased black youth fizzle into the background of the white male gaze, and to witness the oversimplification of the wrongfully criminalized black man by a white man seeking to culminate his career.
Films like Crown Heights do nothing for the black collective aside from soliciting the black body to illustrate the contents of a white man’s mind. Aside from a means to analyze white perception of black injustice, the film is most prevalent in providing a visual discourse that not only implicitly highlights white evil, but exposes the black narrative lost in the silence of non-black authorship.