In 1982, 15 years before Angela Davis first coined the phrase “prison industrial complex,” an 18-year-old Trinidadian-American from Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood received a 15-to-life sentence for a second-degree murder he didn’t commit. 

During his 21 years in prison, that man, Colin Warner, witnessed the grinding buildup of the War on Drugs, Bill Clinton’s 1994 crime bill and the prison-industrial complex’s colossal growth. The film “Crown Heights” grounds Warner’s story in this historical context by incorporating real footage of Clinton’s, Ronald Reagan’s and other politicians’ dog-whistling excoriations of supposed urban criminality.

While Lakeith Stanfield (“Atlanta,” “Get Out”) didn’t know much about Warner’s story prior to portraying him in “Crown Heights,” he understood the backdrop well enough. “My own ignorance about the case was part of the driving force behind me wanting to do the film,” says Stanfield over the phone. “[But] I’m Black; I always knew. It was in the fabric of how I grew up, that there’s us and the police—and there’re a lot of chances that something could go down.” 

Stanfield drew from this understanding to portray Warner at various stages—from the young adult arrested based on the coerced statement of a 14-year-old to the 39-year-old finally exonerated in 2001 with the pro-bono legal aid of his friend, Carl “KC” King.

Playing a character who develops over decades is a challenge for any actor. But rising star Stanfield—costumed in prosthetic dreadlocks and speaking in a West Indian accent—convincingly captures Warner’s transformation.

One of the movie’s most painful sequences shows the circumstances surrounding Warner’s 1982 murder trial. Prosecutors try him alongside Norman Simmonds, a 15-year-old he’d never met. Although the child whom New York City police coerced into falsely identifying Warner reverses his statement and fingers Simmonds, both defendants are convicted. Stanfield brings equal intensity to Warner’s alternating disbelief, outrage and depression, all of which he must process through a outwardly-strong self-presentation in the courtroom and prison halls. 

Stanfield achieved this nuance with information he gathered in a single meeting with Warner. “We met at my hotel,” he recounts. “We sat down, talked for a while and [then] he took me to a restaurant serving Trinidadian cuisine. Really, I just listened to him talk about his experiences, and what he hoped might come of this [film]. I didn’t ask too many questions, I just allowed him to take the floor.”

Warner, for his part, remembers Stanfield as “a young guy who likes his trade.” “He takes a lot of pride in his work and was very conscious [in] his portrayal of me,” says Warner, now 55. 

Photo: IFC Films Black man in light blue striped shirt stands next to Black man in grey tam and black jacket with white and orange shirts in front of yellow-lit hallway "Crown Heights" star Lakeith Stanfield and subject Colin Warner, provided to Colorlines on July 21, 2017.

Detailing his past for ‘Crown Heights’ and the for 2005 “This American Life” episode on which the movie is based has required Warner to repeatedly recount the most traumatic time of his life. But he says he’s willing to make the sacrifice to bring attention to stories like his. “I cannot do anything about losing 21 years of my life. That time has been gone,” he says over the phone. “My job now is to educate as many people as possible to what is going on right in front of their eyes, every day.” 

This job is more urgent under the Trump administration, which champions a return to mandatory minimum-sentencing policies that flourished at the time of Warner’s incarceration. But he is undaunted. “We all have issues we’re dealing with right now, and some issues may look bigger than us—and it may not be [the case],” says Warner. “After this movie, you may think that issue that looked like a mountain looks like a molehill now.” 

If the 2017 Sundance Audience Award that “Crown Heights” won offers any prediction of the film’s success, it might uplift Warner’s story and his cause to a platform unimaginable in 1982. 

“Crown Heights” is in select theaters via Amazon Studios and IFC Films. Visit the movie’s website to see if there’s a screening near you.