THE STORY – Bernadine is a stoic prison warden, but two back-to-back executions put a strain on her marriage, career and convictions.
THE CAST – Alfre Woodard, Richard Schiff, Danielle Brooks, Michael O’Neill, Richard Gunn, Wendell Pierce & Aldis Hodge
THE TEAM – Chinonye Chukwu (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 113 Minutes
By Nicole Ackman
The Oxford dictionary defines “clemency” as mercy or leniency. It is also the term used for the pardon that a governor can extend to a convicted individual. Chinonye Chukwu’s film “Clemency” explores both the mercy that convicts on death row hope to receive to save them from execution and the mercy that those who work in the prisons must seek from themselves. It is the story of a prison warden named Bernadine who is crumbling under the external and internal pressure of her job. The film is a tough watch emotionally, though the performances are stronger than the film itself. Certainly, it looks at capital punishment from a very different perspective.
With protestors right outside the prison gates, Bernadine (Alfre Woodard) must go about her daily life at her job. After a lethal injection goes wrong, the prison falls under even more scrutiny. Years of being a part of these executions have certainly taken their toll on Bernadine and as prisoner Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge), who may or may not actually be guilty of the crime he was convicted of, gets closer to his execution date, the pressure seems to increase. This film does not hold back and its ending certainly packs a punch.
The movie was written and directed by Chinonye Chukwu and it’s a strong achievement to only be her second full-length film. Her understated direction focuses on showcasing Woodard’s brilliant acting. The movie is emotionally intense throughout and properly delves into the mind of a woman who has been part of a machine that takes lives for so long that she is no longer fully in touch with her own humanity. The script is also clever in delivering information to the audience; for example, it cloaks sharing with the audience how the execution is performed by having Bernadine tell the prisoner, Woods, in preparation.
The movie at times feels longer than its two-hour run-time, partially because of the sections that focus on Bernadine’s failing relationship with her husband. While I found this to be one of the most fascinating themes of the story — how does a person who works in that environment connect with people who are in less depressing jobs? — the execution didn’t feel fully fleshed out. Perhaps it was that the audience never got a chance to feel that her relationship with her school teacher husband was anything worth saving.
At the heart of this film is Alfre Woodard’s inspired performance. For most of the film, she is very dignified and calm, even to the point of coldness. However, there are quick glimpses at the woman under the mask, such as when she gets drunk at a bar and has to be taken home by a coworker. Bernadine is surely one of the most complicated characters to come to the screen this year: a woman who seems to be a cog in a machine but yet views her job as a way of giving “these men respect” that they might not otherwise receive. It is a role that could only succeed in the hands of a masterful actress and luckily, that’s right where it landed.
The performances of the ensemble cast are generally good, but Aldis Hodge’s role as the prisoner Anthony Woods whose execution is approaching is particularly commendable. He similarly gives a fairly stoic performance, punctuated with outbursts of emotion. Hodge’s character was convicted of killing a cop, though he maintains his innocence. It’s not difficult to find connections between this character and stories seen on the news in the United States every day. Hodge’s performance is a compassionate look into what a prisoner on death row might be experiencing, whether or not he deserves to be there.
One of the characters in “Clemency” remarks that “All people want to be seen.” This movie is remarkable in that it provides a look at a group of people involved in capital punishment that are largely ignored. Other films, like this year’s “Just Mercy” and “Brian Banks,” have considered the lives of the inmates on death row and the lawyers who fight for them. Fewer people have thought about the experiences of the people who work in these prisons. While it is not a perfect film, Chinonye Chukwu’s “Clemency” does just that, in addition to being a vehicle for Alfre Woodard’s stunning performance.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – Alfre Woodard’s performance is masterful in a film that considers a controversial issue from a new perspective.
THE BAD – The film feels longer than its actual runtime, has some subplots that don’t work, and is depressing without any sort of hope.
THE OSCARS – None