Judge Denny Chin ’78 of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit was recently portrayed by actor BD Wong in the film The Courtroom.
The film, produced by Waterwell, is based on the real-life case of Elizabeth Keathley, an immigrant who came to the United States from the Philippines and who faced deportation after mistakenly registering to vote while on a K3 visa. The Center on Asian Americans and the Law at Fordham Law School will be hosting a screening of the film on February 23.
The film’s script was developed using publicly-available court transcripts and every line spoken by the film’s actors was actually said in court by the real person they are portraying. The conceit allows the filmmakers to accurately recreate Keathley’s trial and recount the difficulties she faced in navigating the legal system.
The film’s director, Lee Sunday Evans, who is also Waterwell’s artistic director, said that the decision to use court transcripts offered an opportunity to examine the intense and potentially life-changing experience of going through deportation proceedings through a “moving, personal story [that]also had this really compelling legal question at the heart of it.”
Judge Chin first became involved in the production several years ago during its first iteration as a live theatrical performance that included participation from real judges, Evans said. Judge Chin played himself in the performance, reciting the actual naturalization speech he used to swear in new American citizens when he served as a district judge.
While developing the project, Evans consulted with Judge Chin at his chambers, where a copy of his grandfather’s naturalization certificate hangs on a wall. In the film, Wong—well-known for his long-running roles on Law and Order: Special Victims Unit and the Jurassic Park films—plays the role of Judge Chin and holds up a copy of the same naturalization certificate.
To prepare for filming, Wong and Chin met on Zoom to discuss the role, and Chin says it was “an amazing honor” to be portrayed on screen by Wong.
This is also not the first time Judge Chin has been portrayed on screen. In The Wizard of Lies, he is portrayed by an actor as the judge on the Bernie Madoff case. An actor playing Judge Chin also makes a brief appearance in the recently released Netflix documentary series Madoff: The Monster of Wall Street.
The Feb. 23 screening at the Law School will be followed by a panel discussion and Q&A featuring Judge Chin and Kristin Villanueva, who portrays Keathley in the film. They will be joined by Gemma Solimene, clinical associate professor of law at Fordham, along with moderator Thomas Lee, Leitner Family Professor of International Law.
Chin encouraged all students to attend the screening event to see a vivid recreation of a real deportation proceeding and the inner workings of immigration courts.
“The courtroom scenes, both in the immigration court and in the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, are very realistic,” said Chin. “The screenwriter followed the actual transcripts, so it’s a great learning tool to see how a case is actually argued.”
For Evans, the opportunity to show an often unseen part of the legal system was an important part of the production. “Immigration court isn’t really part of the cultural zeitgeist in the way that criminal court is,” said Evans. “The fact that the film could be a way for people to understand what immigration court is like is meaningful to us.”