“Ordinary people can be very extraordinary if they put their minds to it.” — Carl King
Filmmaker Matt Ruskin exemplifies Carl King’s statement. With three ripped-from-headlines thrillers on the way, his job far outreaches the role of just entertaining an audience. He exposes real-life injustices. While the pandemic has delayed any filming plans, Ruskin’s debut film, Crown Heights, has found a new resonance among protests calling for reform.
Upon hearing the story of how Carl King had helped to freed Colin Warner from decades of wrongful imprisonment for a 1980 murder in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, Ruskin was immediately inspired. He had no idea that he was about to influence millions.
“I heard their story on a radio show called This American Life,” Ruskin recounts. “I was in my car and I heard this incredible story. I heard Colin and Carl both interviewed, and was just blown away by it. I thought it would make an incredible movie.”
Despite the cliché “innocent until proven guilty,” Ruskin was pained to learn how the odds were automatically stacked against cases like Warner’s, even with the doubts that swirled around his involvement in the case from the very beginning. Warner was named by a teen who was falsely claiming to be an eyewitness. And suddenly, Warner was being held for the murder of 16-year-old Mario Hamilton despite having had no association with the crime. He had never met the victim or the killer before in his life. While New York City Police Department officers arrested the actual murderer — Norman Simmonds, who was then 14-years-old — detectives had also interrogated a teen witness without a lawyer or parent present. The witness, who later said that he did so under duress, picked Warner’s photo out of a selection supplied by detectives. What resulted was a two-decade-long battle that Carl King waged to see his friend fully exonerated in court.
Ruskin recognized the power that Warner’s story had in portraying the trauma of a wrongful conviction. He wanted to look beyond the facts and focus on the relationships that had developed and the tortures that were endured. He then tracked down Warner and King and cast Lekeith Stanfield and Nnamdi Asomugha to play them. The outcome was Crown Heights: a film that followed Warner through his years of incarceration.
“I think the power of telling some individual person’s story is when you make things human and you tell things in a way that everybody can relate to on a deeply human level,” Ruskin said. “… [I]t’s not just somebody throwing a bunch of statistics at you. You think about the people that it actually affects.”
Ruskin didn’t want to stop there — he wanted viewers to understand that Warner’s case does not stand alone. After recreating Warner’s journey, the film ended with a chilling reminder that an estimated 120,000 prisoners in the United States are innocent. Crown Heights, which was released by Amazon Studios in 2017, is not just the story of one man — it’s the story of thousands. And it’s also a call to action.
“For those working as public defenders, or working to try and get innocent people out of prison, I think it felt like [the film] validated the work that they’re doing,” Ruskin explained. “It … raise[d] awareness about the work that they do.”
With some 1,500 cases wrongful incarceration unearthed nationwide in recent years, advocates argue that the issue afflicts us all with an untold number of cases that have yet to be revealed.
“This movie was about what could happen to any African-American in the U.S., it didn’t matter if you were from the motherland, the Caribbean, or from Texas,” said Carl King.
This year, people have been calling for reform on a range of social justice issues, including within the criminal justice system. Especially now, Matt Ruskin’s value is amplified; the world needs people who are ready to spread stories that the public might not be familiar with.
“It doesn’t take millions of dollars to turn things around but it takes a few people with big hearts,” said King. And on that point too, Ruskin agrees.
This story was completed as a reporting assignment for The School of The New York Times.