Directed by Chinonye Chukwu.
Starring Alfre Woodard, Aldis Hodge, Wendell Pierce, Richard Schiff, Danielle Brooks, Richard Gunn and Michael O’Neill.
A prison warden working on Death Row prepares for the execution of a Black man convicted for shooting a police officer.
Clemency is book-ended with two shots of Alfre Woodard’s Death Row warden walking through the halls of the prison she runs. The circumstances, however, could not be more different. With her body and her face, Woodard conveys the immense journey her character has been on for the previous two hours of running time; the final shot adding the cherry on top of an incredible display of nuanced, complex screen acting. Chinonye Chukwu’s second feature seldom raises its voice above a whisper, but that does nothing to dull its power.
The film introduces Woodard’s experienced, stoic warden Bernadine as she prepares to oversee an execution by lethal injection. When the “procedure” – as it’s almost always euphemistically called – goes awry, she reacts quickly, but it’s clear that a crack has formed in her facade. Chukwu’s intelligent, enigmatically sparse script brilliantly pricks at that crack, asking whether even those most intimately involved in the barbarism of capital punishment can fully justify their actions. As Bernadine prepares for the imminent execution of convicted cop killer Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge) – who continues to maintain his innocence – she finds herself quietly grappling with a maelstrom of moral doubt.
Clemency rests almost entirely on Woodard’s shoulders, and she delivers a performance of real intelligence. Bernadine is someone who is professional enough to craft a facade of emotional detachment, but also human enough that the facade cannot fully mask her increased anguish. It would be wrong to say that the character is ever an open book and she is effectively a mish-mash of personalities depending on location, from her authoritative work demeanour to her softer relationship with husband Jonathan (Wendell Pierce) and the destructive drinker she often becomes during after-work trips to a local bar.
The layers within Woodard’s work allow Chukwu more latitude in terms of the visual look and tone of the movie, which is almost universally grey and austere. This is an environment entirely without hope, regardless of the chanting activists permanently located in the car park and the repeated pep talks from veteran anti-death penalty lawyer Marty (Richard Schiff) when he visits his client. The darkness here is all-consuming and Chukwu spotlights the way in which its inherently inhuman feel sucks the life out of all who spend time there – whether they’re marked for state-sanctioned death or not.
That’s not to say, though, that the movie lacks heart. Hodge’s performance as a condemned man struggling against the constant rollercoaster of hope and disappointment that characterises a Death Row inmate’s final weeks is nothing short of exceptional. He silently weeps as Bernadine recounts the process of his death, then hammers his head against the wall in an attempt to assert autonomy over his own death. Every glint of light at the end of his tunnel is masked almost immediately and it’s heart-breaking to see Hodge – last seen in The Invisible Man – convey this man who is being destroyed as much by his own misguided hope as he is by the system moving him towards death.
Clemency is not a polemic against the death penalty and, notably, avoids making an explicit political point or an obvious argument. In its dispassionate depiction of this world, however, it does clearly convey a stance as to how this definitive, final idea of punishment hollows out the society in which it exists. This is a world devoid of empathy and, as Woodard makes clear through her pained expression in the final scene, any moment of compassion renders the job near-impossible.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.