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The Courtroom Film Review: Musings on Immigration Law

Adapted from a Broadway play, The Courtroom tells the true story of a Filipina immigrant who risked deportation after mistakenly registering to vote while on a K3 visa.

Originally presented as an off-Broadway play, Lee Sunday Evans’ The Courtroom doesn’t waste any time introducing us to its protagonists, placing us right into the titular courtroom – that of a hearing that took place on November 17, 2008 in Chicago -, where the respondant, Filipina immigrant Elizabeth Keathley (Kristin Villanueva, who also starred in the play), is being sworn in. From the very start, the film lets us know that the dialogues are “taken verbatim from court transcripts,” and it’s by listening to those transcripts that we learn more about the case in question. Judge Zerbe (Marsha Stephanie Blake, of The Laundromat) asks Elizabeth if she needs an interpreter, specifying that they wouldn’t speak her specific Tagalog dialect, the defendant declines the offer, and we understand that her knowledge of English is very limited.

In fact, her language skills might have something to do with her presence in the courtroom: back in 2004, when Elizabeth visited the Department of Motor Vehicles to get her driver’s licence and State ID, the government official handed her a voter registration form. Not knowing what it was and that it had nothing to do with her driver’s licence, Elizabeth signed the form, hence effectively registering to vote while on a K3 visa, a crime punishable by deportation. Taking place almost entirely in Judge Zerbe’s courtroom, the film recreates the trial, with both Elizabeth and her husband John (Michael Chernus, of Severance) being interrogated by Homeland Security representative Gregory Guckenburger (Michael Braun, of Succession) and defended by Richard Hanus (Linda Powell, of The Report).

The prosecutor insists that Elizabeth is to blame for acting against the rules, while the defense makes the case for an “unintentional violation,” since Elizabeth didn’t know neither what she was signing nor that, as an immigrant, she didn’t have the right to vote in any elections, and was “innocently guided along by a government official.” As the defendant tells her story, it becomes even more evident that, if Elizabeth is to blame, it’s exclusively for having made a bureaucratic mistake, and she does not deserve to be deported. The judge asks more questions, prompting Mr. Hanus to make a stronger argument that would enable her to rule in the immigrant’s favour, and we, as invisible witnesses to the proceeding, try to make up our minds on what the verdict should be.

The real strength of this courtroom drama is that it doesn’t tell us what to think about the case. Even if it’s evident whose side the team behind the film is on, director Lee Sunday Evans and writer Arian Moayed refrain from glamorising the events, simply presenting us with a difficult case where we can understand both the defendant, who didn’t know what she was doing when she signed the document, and the judge, who might be sympathetic to Elizabeth’s predictament but who also has to make a decision based on the law, which the defendant clearly broke. The Courtroom poses a lot of questions that absolutely need to be asked, treating none of the characters like villains: in the end, it’s clear that the film’s main antagonist is the law itself – a law that was changed in seven states further to Keathley’s case.

It’s also not hard to see why The Courtroom was originally an off-Broadway play: the closed, intimate space of the theatre would effectively place the audience as witnesses to the case, making the film’s message have even more of an impact because of the sense of urgency that comes with seeing something performed live. Here, the urgency is replaced by tension, effectively conveyed by means of potent sound design (Daniel Kluger) and a partially rendered set that only shows us certain parts of the courtroom and adds more drama to the proceedings. This device is most effective when the camera zooms in on the characters’ faces, with a pitch black background behind them, which not only allows us to tune in with the characters’ emotions, since their faces are all we can see, but also gives the trial itself more gravity and importance – even more so since we never get to see a flashback of what took place at the Department of Motor Vehicles that led to Elizabeth’s trial.

The performances are also superb, and the fact that so many cast members also acted in the play (not only Villanueva, Powell and Braun, but also Kathleen Chalfant (Old), Michael Bryan French, Mick Hilgers and Hanna Cheek, who all appear in the second part of the film, which takes place three years later at the 7th Circuit, U.S. Court of Appeals) really helps the film preserve even more of a theatrical atmosphere. Kristin Villanueva, Marsha Stephanie Blake, and Linda Powell, in particular, deliver incredibly multilayered performances with looks alone that keep us engaged for the entire first act of the film, even if we don’t always understand what they’re saying, due to the courtroom language used. Linda Powell is undoubtedly the standout, and, though it’s puzzling that the character she plays, attorney Richard Hanus, was only partially gender-swapped, as he’s still referred to as “Mr. Hanus,” the choice pays off, as Powell is always credible and demands our attention in every shot she’s in.

If you have an interest in legal proceedings, you will definitely like The Courtroom. If you don’t, the film might lose you halfway through its runtime, as its “verbatim” court transcripts are quite a lot to take in for nearly its entire duration: not only are certain parts so specific that it’ll be really hard for you to understand it all, but, if you’re already familiar with the real-life case and aware of the verdict, you might also find it a little repetitive in some points. Which is why, even if the play has been adapted to the screen in a technically innovative, impressive way, I still can’t help but think that The Courtroom would have made more of an impact in its original format, with the added element of the live audience and theatre setting.

Furthermore, I haven’t seen the original off-Broadway play, but the film ends with a character played by BD Wong (whose role is best left unspoiled) delivering a speech that invites us to “celebrate differences and bring together our respective heritages,” which is certainly a beautiful and meaningful sentiment, but, to me, it also takes something away from the film’s overall message. Elizabeth Keathley’s case had a huge impact on the law, leading to voter registration rules being changed in seven states, but the film’s ending almost (and, I’m pretty sure, unintentionally) conveys the idea that being a US citizen is the ultimate goal for an immigrant, reaffirming the concept that America is the greatest country in the world even when, now more than ever, immigrants face millions of obstacles on a daily basis, even after having successfully obtained their citizenships.

That said, The Courtroom is still a fascinating, technically impressive and superbly acted courtroom drama that places us in the middle of a trial without overdramatising its events, asking us to focus on an imperfect system and urging us to be more inclusive and understanding, celebrating difference rather than ostracising it. And for that, alone, it absolutely deserves to be watched.

The Courtroom premiered at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival on June 12, 2022.

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