Michael Slate Interview with Matt Ruskin, Writer/Director of New Film Crown Heights

The Story of One Man Unjustly Imprisoned for 20 Years—and the Human Toll of Millions Incarcerated

September 4, 2017 | Revolution Newspaper | revcom.us


The following is an edited transcript from an August 25, 2017 interview on The Michael Slate Show on KPFK radio, with film director Matt Ruskin, whose new film, Crown Heights, is now playing in theaters.

The Michael Slate Show airs every week at 10 am Pacific Time on KPFK, 90.7 FM, a Pacifica Network station in Los Angeles. The show can also be streamed live and people can listen to or download archived shows.

Revcom.us/Revolution newspaper features interviews from The Michael Slate Show to acquaint our readers with the views of significant figures in art, theater, music and literature, science, sports, and politics. The views expressed by those interviewed are, of course, their own; and they are not responsible for the views published elsewhere by revcom.us/Revolution.


"Crown Heights"
Courtesy of Sundance


Michael Slate: Matt Ruskin is the writer and director of Crown Heights, a powerful new film, an incredible film. It’s about the case of Colin Warner, a young Black man framed by the police in New York City for murder and locked up for 20 years; a story all too common at a time of slow genocide for Black people, which could easily be an all-out genocide. I’m really pleased to welcome Matt to the show!

Matt Ruskin: Thanks, Michael. Great to be here.

MS: What compelled you to make this film and, you know, go in the direction you went with it?

Matt Ruskin: I first heard this story on “This American Life,” which is this documentary radio show on public radio and they’re just incredible storytellers. I try to listen to everything they do, and they did a piece about Colin and Carl [King] which features a lot of recordings with them talking about their experience. I was just completely blown away not only by what they had been through, but how they handled themselves. For Colin Warner to emerge from 21 years of wrongful incarceration with his humanity and his dignity, and to come out of it without bitterness or spite, it just sounded super-human. He’s just an extraordinary person, and then for Carl King, his friend who spent more than two decades fighting for Colin’s freedom, this is a guy who, when everybody else gave up, he decided that he couldn’t live in a world when an innocent guy could be left to die in prison. I think that propelled him over those 21 years. History’s really important to me, but as a filmmaker, I wasn’t setting out to make a movie about the criminal justice system, initially. I was just so taken with these two guys. I thought they were so remarkable that I became really passionate about wanting to tell their story.

MS: Natalie Paul, who plays Antoinette, Colin’s partner, said she realized at a certain point that the problem is that you think of the people who are in the situation that Colin was in as NOT being part of society. Therefore you don’t see them, they don’t really matter. They don’t exist. And yet, what came through, even as you’re showing Colin “sinking” or being buried in the prison system, the more you watch, the more his humanity emerges. And the more pressing you feel, “Get this man out!” At the same time, you’re realizing that this is happening to countless numbers of people.

Matt Ruskin: Yeah, countless people. I think one of the things that was so extraordinary about his story and I’m sure is true of many others is that he was arrested when he was 18 years old. He was ripped out of his life and he was a kid. He was not only a kid but he had only been in the United States for two years. He had emigrated from Trinidad and so, you have this guy who’s not only trying to figure who he is as a person, but was still assimilating to the United States and that huge transition. Then you put him in one of the harshest environments imaginable and for him to become such a grounded and compassionate human being in that environment is just unbelievable to me and something that is really central to the film and has honestly been life-changing for me, just being around Colin and spending so much time with him over the last few years; just to see somebody who had that level of strength and who was able to live his life in such a principled way.

One of the aspects of the story that really blew me away was that after serving 15 years, he came up for parole and all he had to do, according to the state, was take responsibility for this crime. He decided that he would rather die in prison than validate their conviction and express remorse for a crime that he didn’t commit. As a result, he spent many more years in prison not knowing that there would be any end to this. The clarity and the conviction just really made an impression on me. My goal for this film was to “humanize” these issues and tell the story in the most human way possible and let people walk away from it drawing their own, sort of, commentary about these overarching issues.

MS: One thing that Colin kept: asserting his humanity as a way of not disappearing inside the prison, even though everyone around him, there was an element of they became something other than what they were, before they got into these jails.

Matt Ruskin: Yeah, I mean, I don’t think that you could convict somebody with no physical evidence based solely on the discredited testimony of a child who was railroaded by police. I don’t think all the adults in the room, the prosecutors, the detectives, could do that if you don’t dehumanize the person you’re doing it to. I think that is true throughout the rest of his experience in the prison system. I would imagine that there are countless people who don’t have advocates on the outside like Carl King, who just never gave up or, a woman like Antoinette who devoted herself to fighting for his freedom. And so, in a way, this story is not just about his experience in prison, but the experience of the people who loved him and held steadfast in their fight to get him out of prison.

MS: One thing that came into my mind each time I saw the film was the Central Park Five, because it wasn’t that great a distance between what happened to Colin and the Central Park Five. There were a lot of similarities—the demonization of the Central Park Five and the whole way that the system came out against them. But it is very much tied to what happened to Colin.

Matt Ruskin: Yeah, I think what I take from that is just rejecting the notion that this was like one bad-apple detective. There’s just too many cases similar to Colin’s. When I was scouting locations in Brooklyn, I would walk around and tell people what we were doing, and I would just describe his case in very general terms, saying that it was a film about that. And then they would say, “Oh, I heard about that guy,” and then they would describe a different case. That really hit me, that how really it’s an everyday occurrence. While I was writing the script, the New York Times ran a whole investigative series about a different homicide detective from south Brooklyn who had something like 50 murder convictions, in 12 of which there was the same eyewitness he had paid for her testimony. So, the Brooklyn DA at the time had opened up a review of his convictions and hundreds of others and within the first few months they had exonerated something like a dozen people. So, this story is really just a drop in the bucket.


MS: I had a friend a while back who used to refer to prisons as modernday slave ships. I kept thinking about that because when you’re looking at things like, for instance, the three presidents that, each one, tried to up the ante of the one before them in terms of talking about and supporting this kind of suppression, oppression, and repression. This is a sort of ongoing thing, where people’s humanity is stolen from them, and that is the equivalent of a genocide.

Matt Ruskin: Yeah. It was really eye-opening to go back and look at the political rhetoric from Reagan, Bush 1, and Clinton, who were all in office while Colin was in prison, and to look at their policies, with respect to being “tough on crime.” And to look at it, for me personally, to look at it for the first time through the eyes of somebody whose life hung in the balance, it took on an entirely different sense of urgency. George Pataki in 1995, when he was [New York] governor, at his inaugural speech which we include in the film, he talks about how, if he has his way politically, he’ll bring back the death penalty, he wants to abolish work release and parole for violent offenders. He succeeded in large part in doing the latter. The 24 percent of violent offenders who are eligible for parole were released in the early 1990s, 1991. And then by 1998 when he had been in office for three years, that number went down to eight percent, and Colin was one of those people—a “violent offender” who was denied parole.

MS: There’s a phrase that comes up a couple of times, from Colin where he says, “Please don’t let it be a cell.” It’s this plea, as he’s sort of coming out of sleep, but every time just in a very painful way, he’s confronted with the sounds of prison, the sights of prison, with the reality of prison. And I thought that was a really, really important way of bringing to people what this actually means.

Matt Ruskin: Yes, he told me that he said this prayer. He would hear the morning bells or buzzer go off and he would hear the sounds of the prison, but before he opened his eyes he would say that prayer because, as he always says, this felt like a nightmare that he was living, that he just hoped he would wake up from one day. That really made an impression on me and it was something I really wanted to find a way to work into the film.

MS: And you did! It’s haunted me since watching this. What do you see as the most important thing in relationship to what people need to know about what happened here?

Matt Ruskin: For me it’s just understanding that these are human beings with families, who were part of a community, guilty or not. These people are ripped out of their lives and put into these incredibly harsh environments. There’s an element to all of it that is inhumane, but with respect to Colin’s story in particular, it is just really—my goal is that people watch this film, maybe who haven’t thought a lot about these issues, and walk away thinking about the human toll, that these are people that we’re doing this to on a mass scale and that’s really the goal of the film, that people could walk away having put themselves in the shoes of Colin and Carl and his wife and all the people affected by this for an hour and a half.

MS: There’s probably millions of Colins either waiting to happen or having happened already, and your film is going to be a tremendous, tremendous asset to people trying to understand what’s happening, but also trying to stand up against it and popularize why this has got to end. So, thank you very much for this, OK?

Matt Ruskin: Thank you very much. I appreciate it.




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