When you think about courtroom dramas, what are some of the names that come to mind? “To Kill A Mockingbird,” “Philadelphia,” “Erin Brockovich,” “The Trial of the Chicago 7“, “Anatomy of a Murder,” “Pink,” “The Verdict,” “12 Angry Men”, “Jolly LLB,” “Damini,” “Primal Fear,” and more. But there’s a fat chance that none of them are even close to being realistic. “Shahid” and “Court” are two of the films I know of that are considered incredibly realistic. Shows like “Guilty Minds” and “Criminal Justice” apparently pushed the genre closer to the realms of realism. However, even they have some degree of dramatization and theatrics in them. The topic of today’s review, though, “The Courtroom,” is probably not just the most accurate representation of a court proceeding, but also one of the best.
Directed by Lee Sunday Evans and written by Arian Moayed, “The Courtroom” follows the harrowing journey of Elizabeth Keathley (Kristin Villanueva). She’s a Filipina immigrant who has mistakenly voted in a US election while being on a K3 visa. And for that, she faces deportation. She’s married to John G. Keithley (Michael Chernus). She has a kid with him and a stepdaughter as well. So, deportation is going to absolutely devastate her family. Representing Elizabeth is Richard Hanus (Linda Powell), who argues that the lack of Elizabeth’s knowledge of the English language and American customs resulted in her accidental vote. She hasn’t done it intentionally. Gregory Guckenburger (Michael Braun) represents Homeland Security and claims that Elizabeth has willingly committed a crime. It’s based on the critically acclaimed off-Broadway play of the same name, which is adapted verbatim from court transcripts.
Unlike a lot of plays that have been turned into movies (“The Humans,” “Casablanca,” “A Few Good Men,” “Dial M for Murder,” and everything Shakespeare”), “The Courtroom” surprisingly doesn’t let go of its theatrical qualities. Technically, it isn’t all that cinematic as it takes place on a dark, blackened stage. The set design is made of two walls, one seat for the audience, a pair of desks for the two parties, and the judge’s desk, along with other necessary props on them. That’s it. But the way cinematographer Daisy Zhou lights the set and frames the scenes, the way editor Cecilia Delgado cuts around said frames, the quality of the items on-screen (courtesy of production designer Emmeline Wilks-Dupoise and art director Kultu Unalir), and even the costumes (by costume designer Junghyun Georgia Lee), gives it a cinematic feel.
A lot of this “cinematic feel” is also due to the performances by Marsha. Stephanie Blake, Michael Braun, Michael Chernus, Linda Powell, Kathleen Chalfant, Michael Bryan French, and Mick Hilgers, BD Wong, and, of course, Kristin Villanueva, as well as the writing by Arian Moayed. The actors don’t even feel like they are acting. And the dialogue-writing is immersive enough to make you imagine that you are watching a live-telecast of a court proceeding instead of a feature film. Given how everyone, except Villanueva, Chernus, and Powell, are kind of the antagonists, you’ll probably find yourself getting frustrated over the trio’s shaky voices, nervous body language, and overall hesitancy. But that frustration will quickly turn into empathy when you realize the kind of system they are up against and how intimidated they feel by it. Villanueva, Chernus, and Powell undoubtedly deserve all the applause for their work in “The Courtroom.”
Coming to the subject matter, well, it is multi-faceted and heavy. Although it’s never said out-loud that the system has acted in a racist fashion against Elizabeth, the assumptions about her IQ, the questioning of her intentions, and the blatant cornering under the garb of upholding the law (thereby saving the person of authority who misled Elizabeth) make things pretty clear. It is infuriating to watch a person get vilified for something that’s not her fault at all. The anger increases ten-fold when you realize the amount of time she has lost in her attempt to become a citizen of the USA. She could’ve spent that time in a healthy fashion with her family. The courts could have used that time to look at the evidence and absolve her of the sins they think she has committed. Yes, she gets justice. But which court is going to compensate her for all her lost time?
The concluding moments of “The Courtroom” are bittersweet, though (and, as mentioned before, feature a surprise appearance from BD Wong). Sweet because Elizabeth is finally going to be free of the burden and the discrimination she has faced so far. And because it re-establishes the fact that the United States of America is made up of immigrants from all over the world. It always was, has been, and will be so. White people (who, BTW, have a history of stealing the land from its native people) have to accept that they are getting a taste of their own medicine, that too legally and by following the laws laid down by their forefathers. It’s bitter because of the words used in the Naturalization Oath of Allegiance to the United States of America. They sound very brainwash-y in nature, with an unnecessary amount of focus on how to use arms and exude nationalism for the country.
In closing, all I want to say is that “The Courtroom” is one of the best movies of the year and one of the best (and most realistic) courtroom dramas of all time. By telling the story of the long-winded and tiring journey of an immigrant, Lee Sunday Evans and Arian Moayed give an idea of what millions of others face in their search for a better life. The movie looks simplistic. But it has layers upon layers of complexity due to the subject matter, the dialogue-writing, the cinematography, the editing, and, of course, the performances. Kristin Villanueva and Linda Powell deserve all the love, appreciation, and awards in the world. Talking about awards, the courtroom dramas that make the cut usually feature A-listers. But, despite having none, “The Courtroom” is worthy of the world’s attention. So, seek it out in any way you can and spread the word.
“The Courtroom” is a 2022 courtroom drama directed by Lee Sunday Evans. The film had its world premiere at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival.