Hailed as the “best theater of 2019” by the New York Times, The Courtroom is back to telling its story, this time adapted for the silver screen. Directed by Lee Sunday Evans and written by Arian Moayed, the Tribeca-selected legal thriller recounts the real-life story of Elizabeth Keithley (Kristin Villanueva), a Filipina immigrant from Illinois on a K3 Visa. Keithley registers to vote at the DMV and subsequently votes in a federal election, unaware that voting as a non-US citizen is a crime punishable by deportation.
We watch Keithley’s journey and traumatization at the hands of the legal system in a series of court hearings spanning 11 years, throughout which she faces the very real threat of deportation and the breakup of her family that would result. (For more on the process of adapting The Courtroom from stage to screen, check out Screen Speck’s extensive interview with Moayed and Evans.)
Immigration lawyer Richard Haynes (Linda Powell), arguing before the Court of Appeals, summarizes the entire case with a question that’s both simple and hardly straightforward: “How in the world did this happen?” The Courtroom presents an extremely rare case so sinister in its simplicity that it became the bane of the Keithleys’ existence.
Evans’ feature directorial debut is a marvel. She originally directed the Off-Broadway production by Waterwell, the artist collective dedicated to “deliberately wrestl[ing] with complex civic questions.” (Evans is Waterwell’s artistic director; Moayed is its co-founder.) She brought her experience as a choreographer into this filmed version of the story: despite having little to no physical activity, The Courtroom feels like every character is acting under a rhythm that even the audience is a part of. It conveys an intimate, immersive experience usually reserved for the theater, but manages to amplify the immersion in this format.
Villanueva handles Elizabeth with meticulous care and respect, never once leaning into an exaggerated performance or enunciation. She says everything without saying much, conveying all her trepidation through mere glances, whispers, and fleeting touches.
Despite its relatively short runtime of 87 minutes, The Courtroom manages to tackle many different issues on both a political and personal level. Most notably, this includes the handling of Elizabeth’s grasp of the English language. It’s important to establish to the audience that Elizabeth can understand perfectly what’s going on around her and that her Cebuano accent doesn’t negate that. Rather, the issue lies in isolation: having to sit in a room with an onslaught of people making decisions about her and undermining her intelligence when the rest of The Courtroom‘s players don’t themselves know the difference between the Bisayan and Tagalog languages.
Additionally, considering the plethora of rotating actors who got to do this on the stage – from Jennifer Ehle and J. Smith Cameron to Patrick Wilson (as well as Linda Powell) – it’s clear that The Courtroom has never cast its judge based on a specific race or gender. This is in turn how The Courtroom, whether intentionally or not, is able to posit one of its most important questions: Does diversity in the judicial system absolve immigrants – especially women and people of color?
The film makes it clear that real change won’t happen unless the legal system changes. Judge Zebre declares that her hands are tied because of the law, though Haynes, Elizabeth’s lawyer, thinks the immigration law under which she’s tried allows us to help on a case-by-case basis. Similarly, The Courtroom ends on a bittersweet note, neither happy nor sad. Elizabeth and her family look ahead, thinking about everything that was stolen from them as well as everything that place has given them. It is enough.
If you miss the premiere at the Metrograph today, you can stream The Courtroom on the Tribeca website until the 26th.