Writer-director Chinonye Chukwu creatively establishes a totally distinctive brand of somber female empowerment in a penetrating character study of professional disconnect and consciousness. Chukwu’s (“alaskaLand”, “A Long Walk”) piercing and thought-provoking prison drama Clemency examines the tested psyche of stoic female prison warden Bernadine Williams (played compellingly by Oscar nominee Alfre Woodard) as it balances the thin line between the honored obligation of duty versus the psychological weariness of such an indelible obligation within the odious walls of death row.
Indeed, it takes an intense and insightful performer of veteran Woodard’s noted caliber to bring a debilitating sense of conflict and moral confusion to an otherwise resilient and steady-minded woman whose years of overseeing death row executions while adhering to standard procedures has finally taken its emotional toll. Hence, Clemency is a dramatic, soul-searching landscape that gives able permission for its main protagonist Bernadine Williams, the soon-to-be executed prisoners, pro and anti-death row advocates and yes…even the audience to feel condemned and outraged accordingly.
Dutifully, Chukwu paints a grim picture of an inevitable fate that is deeply affecting for all involved in the precarious process of administering death. Thankfully, Chukwu’s complicated inquiry into the film’s beleaguered leading lady and the heavy-handed subject matter at hand is devoid of all the expected cliched conventions. Clemency is deeply moving and startling in its absolute truth. This raw territory has been explored before in thoroughly transcending death row inmate films. However, Chukwu’s riveting exposition–aided by Woodard’s profoundly convincing performance–is a welcomed addition to such a valued genre.
As imagined, the steely Bernadine Williams has seen it all throughout the notorious years of methodically supervising the death row executions. After all, Bernadine’s convenient philosophy has always been to simply do her job with as much minimal emotional involvement as possible. Of course, the question remains: just when is the determined breaking point to finally embrace her elusive disillusionment?
Perhaps the executioner’s botched attempt to apply a lethal injection to a scheduled dying death row inmate is what finally made Bernadine snap? Even more disheartening is the case of cop killer Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge) who is being represented by his lawyer Marty Lumetta (Richard Schiff). After Woods’ fifteen years on death row Lumetta is trying to secure a last-minute pardon for his client from the governor’s office. When Bernadine tries to routinely discuss the method of execution for the distraught Woods he takes some rather drastic methods in his jail cell to end his life on his terms.
Understandably, the high stress levels at the job is causing some major riff in Bernadine’s marriage at home. Husband Jonathan (Wendell Pierce) is a retired school teacher whose wish is to convince his wife to leave her chaotic warden position behind and join him in tranquil retirement. The existing tension between the Williamses is highlighted by Bernadine constantly questioning the existence of capital punishment and her longevity as the indifferent jail boss carrying out orders in the name of what some would deem inhumanity.
Bernadine’s mindset about her warden duties start to waver and she becomes rather cynical at the penal system that she staunchly upheld as a prison professional. As for Woods in particular, Bernadine has grown a soft spot for the artistically gifted young man and now feels very doubtful about his accused criminal past. She reasons that Anthony Woods just does not seem to have the monstrous behavior that is contrary to his true nature as a sensitive soul.
Resourcefully powerful and revealing, Clemency is undeniably probing when it comes to its solid convictions about a contemplative woman straddling the undefined fence between strength and weakness. It is Woodard’s restrained yet resonate take as the quietly tormented prison warden Bernadine Williams whose realization about her dedication to follow the protocol of assigned death is now a destructive twitch in her psychological sensibilities. The expressive blankness on Woodard’s fatigued face is soundly generated by the dehumanizing rules of her death-in-charge status. Woodard’s outstanding turn and the invitation of the death penalty conversation makes Clemency a gradual and gritty walk towards its own doomsday discover just before the last meal.
DIRECTOR: Chinonye Chukwu
STARRING: Alfre Woodard, Aldis Hodge, Richard Schiff, Wendell Pierce, Danielle Brooks, Richard Gunn
RUN TIME: 112 minutes