By Benjamin Akpan
In the US, about 30 states still authorize the death penalty – a matter of active controversy, not only in the States, but around the world. In her second feature film Clemency, director Chinonye Chukwu digs a little deeper into the question of capital punishment, charged forward by a tour de force performance by Alfre Woodard, though slightly held back by a lack of thematic coherence. This soul-crushing depiction of the inhumanity of execution by the state is incredibly harrowing, and a well-made quest for reflection.
Clemency opens with an intense, insanely horrifying, expertly crafted scene that sets the pace for the rest of the film: Bernadine Williams, a prison warden, is about to carry out another execution by lethal injection – essentially a regular day on the job. The criminal for the day is set, but his execution goes terribly wrong, leaving everyone, including his family, wholly distressed and traumatized. But Bernadine keeps her cool. This botched execution, however, sets off a chain of events that cause Bernadine to question her morals and sense of empathy.
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For the most part, Woodard’s performance is cold and distant - a vignette of a woman whose benevolence has been deeply repressed by constitutional cruelty to the point where her frigidity feels routine. In various conversations, Bernadine stresses the fact that these executions are a part of her job, which sympathy and philosophy have no hand in. But as the film progresses, Woodard slowly breaks down the walls of her character, revealing layers of emotional vulnerability that only an actress of her calibre can modulate.
The nuances in Woodard’s character are most pronounced when the next inmate in line for execution proves to be more complex than previously ascertained. Anthony Woods maintains his innocence, and his lawyer – though still fighting for him – is gradually losing hope in the possibilities of an executive pardon. Aldis Hodge plays the character of Woods with as much despondency as hope, presenting before us an erratic display of personality that never feels calculated. The contrast between Woodard’s icy performance and Hodge’s sensitivity is underscored in a haunting scene in which Bernadine informs Anthony of his forthcoming execution, while he sits on the prison floor, silently weeping. Bernadine is so out of touch with her emotions, wrung dry by the brutalities of a system that also put an innocent man on death row in the first place. The standoff between Bernadine’s morality and Anthony’s impending execution results in a deeply affecting ending that’s just as powerful as the film’s opening scene.
Though not technically showy, Clemency has an interesting visual appeal, which steeps the intrinsically dull interiors of the prison in dark muted colors, casting an additional sheen of gloom on an already tense atmosphere. The camera throughout is steady and reserved, yet it is never afraid to let shots linger when appropriate. Its subdued composition overall is very deliberate, creating a keen sense of hopelessness, even in its brief flashes of optimism.
Despite a beginning and ending so rich in poignancy and precision, much of Clemency’s middle feel loose and unfocused. A subplot chronicling Bernadine’s marriage troubles and the growing detachment between her and her husband is never fully resolved, feeling more like a deviation from the story that actually mattered. As much as it seeks to give us insight into the mind (and life) of Bernadine, there’s not enough context to generate that connection. Just like her husband, there is a distance between Bernadine and the audience watching her.
The film also shifts perspectives constantly between Bernadine and Anthony, but it tends to prioritize the pain of those doing the killing over those doing the dying, which – though not inherently bad or detrimental to the story – is a risky approach to take, considering the large number of innocent Black men currently sitting on death row. It is a bold statement to make, seeing as the job of a prison warden is a position voluntarily taken up by those who choose it. It is interesting, however, that Chukwu’s portrayal of a warden is in a positive light – countless other films depict the role as a soulless, blasé person with no regard for life. This empathetic interpretation flips the script on our stereotypical view of these individuals.
Nevertheless, as a larger criticism of incarceration in America, its judicial system, and the employment of capital punishment, Clemency is pretty effective. Chinonye Chukwu shows great promise as a director that can hold her own amidst top-notch performers and a tough subject matter. Clemency leaves us with much to hate, and a lot more to love. But, most importantly, it leaves us with a lot to think about.
*Editor’s Note: Clemency premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival ’19 under GALA Presentations.