Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net, linked from Rotten Tomatoes by Harvey Karten
Director: Lee Sunday Evans
Screenwriter: Arian Moayed
Cast: Kristin Villanueva, Linda Powell, Michael Chernus, Mike Braun, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Kathleen Chalfant, BD Wong
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 6/7/22
Opens: June 16, 2022 at New York’s Metrograph Theatre
After teaching high school for five years, I met a new, twenty-two-year-old faculty member who almost lost his career before it started. In the lunchroom he related how he mistakenly checked a box on his license application that states, “I am a member of a fascist political party.” The examiner, happily, told him to recheck that answer, which he did, and thus, thanks to a sympathetic employee, he began his life as a teacher.
A similar situation took place in an Illinois courtroom in 2008. A woman from the Philippines who married an American and lived in Bloomington, Illinois, was filling out a license form in the Illinois motor vehicle department, and with only a knowledge of English that she gained in her home country where English is a second language, mistakenly checked a box declaring that she is an American citizen. She relies on the examiner who does not ask her whether this is true. She receives a voting card and, together with her husband, votes for her district congressman. When she applies for a green card, the examiner calls her attention to this lie and apparently forwards papers to the Department of Homeland Security, which acts in court to throw her back to the Philippines, leaving her husband, her child, and a stepdaughter to fare for themselves.
The film “The Courtroom” deals with the case in a theatrical manner, almost all the action taking place inside courtrooms except for a final rah-rah talk by a person giving the oath to a group of new citizens. The film uses the verbatim transcript from the actual trial.
The first thing that comes to mind is, hey! We’re faced now by an epidemic of jerks with assault rifles who use them to kill multiple persons all over the country. We’ve got fifteen million undocumented immigrants pursuing their lives in this country, in effect hiding out from Homeland Security. The U.S. is going to make a big production to deport a lovely woman, no convictions, a family values individual if there ever was one according to her husband, who rose up from a failed marriage to bring her into the country because, he states, she meets the ethical values that he was seeking?
The film follows a production in my neighborhood theater, St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn Heights. The players are all actors including Marsha Stephanie Blake as Judge Zerbe, Michael Braun as the agent for Homeland Security, Linda Powell as defense lawyer Richard Hanus, Kristin Villanueva as defendant Elizabeth Keathley, Michael Chernus as the defendant’s husband John, and Kathleen Chalfant as Judge Easterbrook.
One of the interesting quirks is that the judge asks the defendant whether she needs an interpreter, which leads to a back-and- forth conversation indicating that she speaks not Tagalog, the official language of her home country, but Visayan, a dialect, which, good luck finding an interpreter. She deals with English just fine. The key defense point is that the state official rushed her through the motor vehicle application, leading her to improperly state that she is an American citizen, but the charge comes because she received a voting card and actually casts a vote. Federal law states that anyone doing so shall be deported. Sounds clear enough, albeit heartless. The defense points out that she is a victim of “entrapment by estoppel,” meaning that she was urged by the official to submit the application. Think of this: you are approached by a treasury agent who wants to trap a criminal. You are told to sell $10,000 in counterfeit bills to a suspect. The suspect would be nailed as soon as he makes the purchase. Are you, the person told to help the department, guilty of a crime? Of course not. But does this concept apply in a civil case as well? That’s what the immigration case turns on.
Among my surprises is the courtroom which I would have expected to be mayhem, like New York’s housing court, our city’s Small Claims Court, and even criminal cases that are each allegedly dispensed in a matter of minutes. The modern courtroom is empty except for the people connected with the case, and plenty of time is allowed for all sides to be heard.
“The Courtroom” may not be “The Caine Mutiny Court Martial” but it commands audience attention in the suspense created. Most of us would probably side with the defendant, a good person who should remain with her family and be excused for doing what anyone, especially without fluent English, might make. Then again, why didn’t her husband tell her that she is not permitted to vote?
This is director Lee Sunday Evans’ debut film, playing out with appropriate tension even though we’re not dealing with the Johnny Depp Amber Heard proceedings or a mafia showdown, but just a nice woman trapped by the letter of the law. There is happily no music in the soundtrack to distract from the verbal sparring.
87 minutes. © 2022 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – B+
Acting – B+
Technical – B
Overall – B+