Starring-Alfre Woodard, Richard Schiff
Scott’s Review #1,068
Reviewed October 7, 2020
I will be candid. Clemency (2019) is not a film that will be everybody’s cup of tea. The topics of prison, execution, and psychological conflict among its characters are quite the heavies. After a long day of work and the desire to snuggle on a comfy couch with a tall glass of wine, this film may not be recommended. But, for those seeking a thought-provoking experience about timely and serious social issues, with racial overtones, Clemency is a riveting and powerful story. This film is written well, and it matters.
Haggard, prison warden Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard) trudges along day after day managing the multitude of tasks that her job requires of her. She is committed to overseeing the prison executions and experiences her twelfth at the start of the film. The procedure is botched causing the prisoner excess pain and an investigation is launched. Bernadine is conflicted and consumed by her job causing her marriage to Jonathan (Wendell Pierce) to deteriorate and her visits to a local watering hole to increase.
When Bernadine takes interest in Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge) a prisoner slated for execution in a case receiving national media attention and prison protests, her conflict escalates. Anthony’s ex-girlfriend (Danielle Brooks) and attorney (Richard Schiff) play vital roles, especially when the convicted cop killer’s innocence is called into question. Will he or won’t he receive a last-minute pardon from the governor sparing his life?
Chinonye Chukwu, a rookie director, is a black, Nigerian, female with lots of interesting things to say and a bright future ahead of her. She also penned the screenplay and tackles a weighty issue of great controversy in the United States. The age-old debate of whether capital punishment is inhumane or even thwarts crime in the film’s subconscious, but neither is the film about that per se. The fact that Chukwu and her characters of Bernadine and Anthony are both black introduces an additional racial element. In the time of “Black Lives Matter”, this is a powerful statement.
To say that Clemency is a downer is an understatement, though it leaves the viewer with some sense of hope amid an ambiguous ending. I won’t spoil the film, but we wonder what will become of Bernadine. Has she had enough of the prison lifestyle and decide to fly off in a new direction or is she so consumed by her work that she is trapped for life, too forgone for any growth?
The final sequence is brilliant. An impending execution, emotional goodbyes are said, and a full minute or so of a closeup scene focused on Woodard’s face taps a range of emotions that includes compassion, disgust, and unbridled sadness. The gloomy and stark atmosphere that Chukwu presents fills the film with a bleakness that is eclipsed ever slightly by the possibility of change.
A common theme, and not only with Bernadine, is the need to be heard and the frightening perception of being invisible. Jonathan, in a strong supporting role by Pierce, is the perfect husband. A teacher, he is responsible, loyal, and even prepares a surprise dinner on their anniversary. He feels diminished by Bernadine and resides in a motel after he has had too much. Anthony’s attorney and a priest, both plan to soon retire, feeling their jobs are pointless, they are not heard, and their work neither appreciated nor noticed.
Interesting that Chukwu does not reveal which state within the United States the twelve or thirteen executions take place in, though we can only guess it’s somewhere in the south, Clemency (2019) is a bold offering fraught with debate, questions, and character conflict. A slow build, there is much to savor and mull over, and the story feels personal. Woodard gives a soaring performance with exceptional work by all the supporting players.
I cannot wait to see what Chukwu comes up with next.
Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Feature, Best Female Lead-Alfre Woodard, Best Screenplay