Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, Chinonye Chukwu’s grim death row drama Clemency begins with a lethal injection gone wrong, which results in a prisoner experiencing an especially agonizing end. Dealing with the controversial issue of capital punishment, still practiced by twenty-nine states in the U.S., the film is particularly concerned with the reality of those public servants effectively tasked with the role of executioner. Primarily focused on prison warden Bernadine (Alfre Woodard) and the impending execution of one of her inmates Anthony (Aldis Hodge), convicted for the murder of a police officer, Clemency may test the patience of some viewers—yet that’s somewhat the point. In keeping with the prisoners’ gruelling wait, there’s an underlying sense that those at the mercy of the justice system—which extends to grieving parents keen to gain closure—are in a constant state of purgatory.
Woodard’s impressively contained turn as Bernadine conveys a balance of unmoving duty and underlying self-doubt. When her facade slowly begins to crumble in the final act, Chukwu gives her a two-minute close-up that is a masterclass in demonstrating introspective turmoil. Clemency ultimately feels too preoccupied with Bernadine’s personal life—her frayed marriage dominates without contributing much—at the expense of fleshing out the institutional politics at play. There’s also a reluctance to delve into the details of Anthony’s individual case, which essentially renders his guilt irrelevant to the question of whether or not he deserves the death penalty. The nature of the charge against him speaks to the troublesome nature of the African American community’s still-volatile relationship with the police force, and the presence of protestors outside the prison clearly acknowledges the Black Lives Matter movement. These elements are the closest thing to a political statement in Clemency, which essentially offers a humanist take on whether this specific idea of justice is really worth all of the pain.
Published as part of December 2019’s Before We Vanish.