Following in the footsteps of the recent Just Mercy, the sobering and austere Clemency poses some fresh and pertinent questions about the difficult subject of the death penalty.
The film examines the multi-faceted human cost of the process, including the effect on those who implement it. Lead character Bernadine, astonishingly played by veteran character actress Alfre Woodard, is the warden of a death row prison whose role in the system is eating away at her day-by-day. Things come to a head for her as she faces the imminent execution of convicted cop killer Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge, seen recently in The Invisible Man), whose innocence is protested daily outside the prison. This compounds her long-time marital issues with her increasingly weary teacher husband Jonathan (The Wire’s Wendell Pierce) and throws into question whether she can continue in her position.
It’s a deliberately-paced, intentionally uncomfortable piece of drama, but this restrained quality leaves plenty of room for the characters to exist as living, breathing people. Writer-director Chinonye Chukwu spent years researching the topic, evidenced by a mature, meaningful narrative that stays with you.
Her film is anything but surface level. For example, during a particularly powerful scene which features an execution, Chukwu holds steady on a shot of Bernadine’s reaction for more than two minutes. It’s a remarkable moment which encapsulates the horror, fear, sadness, confusion, and burdened responsibility that the actress brings to the role. The fact that Woodard wasn’t nominated at the Oscars earlier in the year is, quite frankly, ridiculous. Although the supporting cast are similarly excellent – not least Hodge’s impassioned inmate with the weight of his state-sanctioned death weighing heavy on his shoulders – it’s Woodard’s film, and she shines.
What gives Clemency its power is that it focuses as much, if not more, on the emotional toll on the people caught up in the system as it does on the system itself. Its examination of the fact that African American males are disproportionately incarcerated in the US prison system is given extra relevance in light of the recent Black Lives Matter movement. The film takes a vehemently anti-death penalty stance, but that point of view is expressed without resorting to the cheap manipulation of a swelling score or big awards-bait speeches. It exerts a restrained power that really resonates.