As warden Bernadine Williams prepares to execute another inmate, she must confront the psychological and emotional demons that come with her job, and grapple with the connection she forges to the man she’s been sanctioned to kill. Alfre Woodard stuns in the harrowing and affecting death row drama.
When it comes to cinema, the prison warden is a role that is normally portrayed as evil, sadistic, and often cartoonishly over-the top. For an example, look only to Donald Sutherland in Lock Up or Bob Gunton in The Shawshank Redemption. Writer-director Chinonye Chukwu flips the script and shows them as they are: cogs in a corrupt and immoral system.
Bernadine is a woman who has learned to cope with the emotional and psychological horrors of her job by building walls. Emotional barricades that shield her from the pain yet also close her off from the rest of the world, including from her long-suffering husband. It is almost as though she herself is imprisoned in the building she governs.
The film opens with a botched execution that is somehow more difficult to watch than the infamous scene from The Green Mile. Witnessing it shakes Bernadine to her core, threatening to bring her life and her defences crashing down around her. This conflict is pushed to its limits when she receives news that another prisoner in her care, Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge), has lost his final appeal and will soon be killed. Matters are complicated when she begins to question Woods’ guilt and as his lawyers seek clemency from the state governor before it’s too late.
Director Chinonye Chukwu avoids the cliched, grandstanding courtroom scenes that would usually feature in such a movie. Opting instead to keep everything confined within prison walls (and Bernadine’s marital home, itself a prison of her own construction), to ensure the focus remains on the characters and their helplessness, trapped as they are by forces greater than them.
Oscar voters ought to re-evaluate their passing over Alfre Woodard for Best Actress. She may not have the juicy, awards-baiting monologue, but her performance is a masterclass in quietly conveying the slow, steady grounding down of Bernadine’s humanity. She draws the audience into a scenario they would rather escape, trapping them with her until the film’s climactic denouement.
Woodard is ably supported by Wendell Pierce as her husband and by Aldis Hodge, rare sparks of life amidst the emptiness of her day-to-day. Clemency is a rare film, one which stays with you, for better or for worse, long after the credits roll.
Clemency is available on VOD from July 17th.