by Nuha Hassan
Lee Sunday Evans’ The Courtroom was originally presented as an off-Broadway play and offers the viewers a front-row experience of the inner workings of America’s immigration court system. The movie wastes no time and introduces the titular courtroom and the central protagonist and respondent, a Filipina immigrant Elizabeth Keathley (Kristin Villanuvea), being sworn in. What’s unique about the film is that the verbatim text of the real court transcripts serves as the dialogue. The Courtroom is a moving and emotionally gripping movie that draws a dramatic re-enactment of the protagonist’s deportation proceedings.
The movie opens with the characters walking into the courtroom from a black background, and Judge Zerbe (Marsha Stephanie Blake) asks Elizabeth if she needs an interpreter. Her lawyer Richard Hanus (Linda Powell) explains that she might not be able to understand the courtroom jargon and they might be able to find someone who speaks the specific Tagalog dialect. Elizabeth declines the offer. Her language skills are the reason why she ended up in the courtroom. Back in 2004, she visited the Department of Motor Vehicles to get her driver’s licence and the government official handed her a voter registration form. Without thinking too much of it, Elizabeth signs the form and registers to vote on a K3 visa, which doesn’t allow non-citizens to vote and it is a crime punishable by deportation. She gets interrogated by Homeland Security representative Gregory Guckenburger (Michael Braun), who insists that she signed the form on purpose and must face the consequences for it.
All of The Courtroom’s drama is set inside a courtroom and it is presented in a theatrical manner, which allows the viewers to fully understand the defendant and prosecutor’s arguments without making any judgements. As these characters go back and forth about Elizabeth’s case, writer Arian Moayed never tries to make the movie feel one-sided. It’s a difficult case and by the end of the deportation proceeding, the viewer is able to understand the complexity of the case. Elizabeth’s lawyer makes the case of “unintentional violation,” which presumes that she didn’t know what form she was signing. The respondent made the case that the government official was urging her to act hastily and she wasn’t able to understand what they were saying due to the fast communication. There is a sense of sympathy from the judge, who understands that she might be innocent to some level, but she makes the decision according to the law that believes that Elizabeth committed an offence and must be deported.
It’s interesting that the antagonist in the movie is the law and not a character. None of the characters is treated as a villain. The lawyer and the defendant are both given the time to make their respective arguments, even though some viewers might be leaning toward Elizabeth’s innocent mistake, she still broke the law.
The Courtroom does an excellent job of building tension in an intimate space. The limited location is filled with a black background and focuses on the characters’ faces drawing drama into the story’s narrative. Since there isn’t much to show in the background, Elizabeth and the other character’s faces are the only things that viewers can see throughout the entire movie. It evokes emotion and suspense to make the trial important and show the risks and consequences the characters take in the movie. This helps due to Villanuvea and Powell’s incredible performances. Their portrayals are engaged and make their presence in every scene they are in. However, in most cases, theatre adaptations don’t usually work on screen because the drama and theatricality work differently. Immigrants face many obstacles in America and around the world. The message at the end of The Courtroom tells the audience that being a citizen in America — the greatest country in the world — is their ultimate goal. Also, the movie believes that cultural differences and heritages must be celebrated, and it’s a beautiful message of unity and equality. Elizabeth Keathley’s case has made a huge impact on law, leading to voter registration rules being changed in seven states. The Courtroom is an emotionally-driven movie that elevates the drama due to the well-written dialogue and never tries to glamorise the deportation proceedings.