In a prison film, the warden is usually portrayed as the villain. Who could forget Strother Martin in “Cool Hand Luke,” Eddie Albert in “The Longest Yard” or Barbara Steele in the Roger Corman-produced “Caged Heat?”
In Chinonye Chukwu’s realistic “Clemency” the focus is on empathy as a superb Alfre Woodard plays unyielding prison warden Bernadine Williams who oversees the executions of the death-row inmates in her correctional facility. She’s dutiful, emotionless and treats the prisoners with dignity – guilty or innocent. But the job has taken its toll on Bernadine’s soul and marriage as evident in the somber film that keeps the audience riveted.
Chukwu comes at you with an opening scene that’s difficult to watch as Bernadine oversees her 12th state-mandated execution by lethal injection. As the inmate lies strapped to a gurney, a paramedic searches for a vein to insert the needle that will deliver the deadly concoction of drugs meant to sedate, paralyze and cause the person to go into cardiac arrest. A priest is in the room, the curtains are drawn as eyewitness and family get a front row seat to the person’s last few moments on Earth.
In this case, something goes wrong and the audience is left cringing as the inmate screams while blood flows leaving the spectators traumatized. An unemotional Bernadine never loses her composure as she orders the curtains closed and moves quickly to correct the botched procedure as the inmate eventually dies.
The excruciating opening sets the tone for a story that offers little in the form of hope but pays off with stirring performances.
Woodard is compelling as the poker-faced warden who takes pride in her job performance while refusing to accept the fact that the psychological effects of the position are taking their toll on her well-being.
I found myself searching behind Woodard’s wide-eyed gaze for some sign of anguish, but the Emmy- and Golden Globe-winning actress can command a scene by just using her facial expressions to allude to her character’s mental state. She can also use that gaze to totally deceive the viewer who is constantly analyzing Bernadine.
The supporting cast features Wendell Pierce as Bernadine’s supportive husband who seems to be the only one to recognize the toll his wife’s job is taking on their marriage, and a terrific Aldis Hodge (“Brian Banks,” “Hidden Figures”) as death-row inmate Anthony Woods, who despite his conviction for killing a police officer in an armed robbery, insists that he is innocent and did not pull the trigger. New evidence seems to back Anthony’s claim as his lawyer Marty Lumetta (Richard Schiff) continues to push the governor to grant his client clemency. What few bright moments that exist in the film are between Anthony and Marty.
“Clemency” won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance earlier this year and Chukwu made history by becoming the first black woman to win the top award. And while one can view the film as being anti-capital punishment, it refuses to preach to the viewer. You won’t find any melodrama, political statements, gender or race issues, and Chukwu is definitely not playing it safe if that’s what you’re thinking.
The film tells a riveting story. It avoids pandering to the audience’s expectations of the initial outcome while the primary focus remains on empathy for not only Woodard, Hodge and Pierce’s characters, but for everyone person in the narrative.
It’s a remarkable achievement.