When it comes to prison-based films, quite often we see the world from the inmate's point of view, along with those supporting them, whether it be their lawyer or family members (see Just Mercy as a good example). Writer-director Chinonye Chukwu takes a different stance in her Sundance Grand Jury Prize winning drama, Clemency. Set in a death row prison, she widens the perspective to see how the psychological baggage is carried by everyone connected to those waiting to learn their fate.
When we are introduced to Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard), she is an experienced prison warden who has previously managed ten executions, each one slowly gnawing away at her being. The botching of an eleventh has a lasting impact on all involved, from Williams herself, to the senior prison officer and prison chaplain. With no context given to his crimes, the stark humanity of the situation instantly challenges the viewer to emphasise with a man taking his last, desperate breaths, regardless of what may have led him to this point.
Chukwu humanises everyone we see here, eventually settling on the story of another prisoner, this time convicted of murdering a police officer 15 years previously. Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge) denies his involvement but the continued help of lawyer Marty Lumetta (the always great Richard Schiff) makes few inroads into keeping him out of the death chamber. The thought of handling another execution is becoming unbearable for Bernadine, while at home her long-term marriage to Jonathan (Wendell Pierce) is running on fumes.
Bernadine has sacrificed her marriage in order to summon the energy to remain in control of her prison and to ensure everything runs with precision accuracy. Even when the parents of the murdered cop (Vernee Watson and Dennis Haskins) asks if their grandson can be present for the termination of Anthony’s life, Bernadine must maintain neutral ground and minimise compassion. She wants to become whole again, she says, and despite her husband’s efforts, she remains imprisoned inside her own mental conflict. Elsewhere the chaplain reveals he plans to retire because the toll is too great, and Anthony’s lawyer intends to do the same after years of being beaten down by the system. As he says to Bernadine when taking a moment away their battle of wills: “To help you understand, when I win, my client gets not to die.”
All round the performances are sober and considered but it’s Woodard and Hodge who carry the heaviest emotional weight. Woodard has always been an actress able to convey her character's feelings with the smallest of facial movements and her restrain is held until it breaks in the last few devastating moments. Hodge is something of a revelation, displaying a real tenderness that takes you into the heart of man counting down his final days. When Chukwu leaves the camera on his face as Bernadine runs through the protocol of his planned death, everything you need to know about his distress can be seen in those widened eyes.
Clemency is more than an anti-death penalty drama and insight into the mental exhaustion experienced by those circling death row. It’s also a statement on the racial inequality of a broken system and how the lives of men of colour are so often taken out of their hands. Chukwu’s story has taken cues from the real-world case of Troy Davis, a man who was executed despite increasing amounts of evidence pointing towards his innocence. It’s no coincidence that the first person we see in the death chamber is Latino and Anthony is one of many Black men whose life isn’t deemed valuable enough to save.
Without wanting to distract from what is a largely impressive film, there are one or two moments that feel a little cumbersome. Awkward coincidences are used to bring Bernadine face-to-face with updates about Anthony’s case being reported on TV or radio, and a key scene with her husband at home unpacks too much within a short space of time. These are small niggles in the grander scheme of things, but they are hard to overlook completely – which is ultimately a reflection of how well-handled everything else is.
How much legs this will have to make an impact during award season remains to be seen, but by the time it hits US cinemas at the end of December almost a year would've passed since it grabbed headlines at Sundance. Woodard and Hodge's performances are deserving of a grander stage, but with momentum lost it’s difficult to see Clemency fighting its way through such a crowded market. Still, it’s the sort of well-helmed adult drama many are complaining stands little chance in today’s franchise environment, so wherever possible you should get out there and support it.
Clemency is available to stream and VoD from July 17th