Years of carrying out death row executions have taken a toll on prison warden Bernadine Williams. As she prepares to execute another inmate, Bernadine must confront the psychological and emotional demons her job creates, ultimately connecting her to the man she is sanctioned to kill.
Clemency opens with one of the more powerful cold opens in recent memory. There are no major special effects, no chase scenes, no one-liners. Instead, we are on death row at an unspecified state prison during the final moments leading up to the execution of a man. Warden Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard) solemnly leads the procedure as Chaplain Hendriks (Michael O’Neill) attempts to keep the prisoner calm. A curtain is pulled back allowing a small gallery of witnesses to see the lethal injection be administered. Then something goes wrong. So wrong that the prison spends the rest of the film dealing with legal repercussions.
“…that Clemency attempts to humanize all angles of the situation and the very real toll it takes on all those involved.”
Warden Bernadine is spent after the opening debacle but has little time to collect herself. Death row inmate Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge) is next on the docket and with protestors outside the prison walls and Woods’ lawyer Marty Lumetta (Richard Schiff) in her office screaming for leniencies, it is fully understandable that she spends her Friday nights with a few people from the office at the dive bar nearby.
The refreshing take on the subject is that Clemency attempts to humanize all angles of the situation and the very real toll it takes on all those involved. Bernadine returns home to her husband, Jonathan (Wendell Pierce) and while still in love, we sense a tension. Memories of the solemn procedure of executions send Bernadine into night terrors and solitary late nights vacantly watching television on the couch.
“…attempts to accurately depict the collateral damage of the current imperfect system of justice.”
We also focus on the day-to-day life that death row inmate Anthony has in the prison as he awaits any act of mercy or kindness that would save him from death. Hodge’s performance is a profoundly beautiful piece of work. Director Chinonye Chukwu lets the actors do the heavy lifting in many of the scenes, with long, unbroken takes that contain little dialogue, staying focused on the performer. In one scene Bernadine stands outside Woods’ cell going over the procedures for execution in a very mannered, antiseptic fashion. The camera stays on him the whole time, allowing waves of emotion to ebb and flow across his expressive face.
Chinonye Chukwu wrote and directed this yet-to-be-released drama that explores just how executions affect everyone be it directly or otherwise. The script carefully stays away from the debate of executions and instead attempts to accurately depict the collateral damage of the current imperfect system of justice.
Clemency is a staggering achievement in its portrayal of a story that we often ignore out of simple spite or ignorance that humanizes all angles with compassion. Should this film get picked up, it would be sure-fire Oscar bait for both Woodard and Hodge, with maybe even a script nomination with the right campaign. Heavy, but ultimately very rewarding, Clemency deserves a chance.
Clemency (2019) Written and directed by Chinonye Chukwu. Starring Aldis Hodge, Alfre Woodard, Wendell Pierce, Richard Schiff, Michael O’Neill.
7 out of 10 stars