Editor KC Wingert reviews Chinonye Chukwu’s powerful debut.
With her sophomore feature Clemency, writer-director Chinonye Chukwu made history as the first black woman to win the Grand Jury prize at Sundance—and in its turn at the London Film Festival, the film proves to overseas viewers to be more than worthy of its acclaim. A stunning exploration of the American death penalty, Clemency is easily one of the most beautifully-told stories and most socially important films of the last decade.
Alfre Woodard leads the cast as Bernadine Williams, a career-driven prison warden who has overseen 12 executions over the course of her tenure. A harrowing opening sequence portraying the execution of convict Victor Jimenez illustrates for viewers the emotional toll that witnessing a man’s death can have on a person. The tension of the scene is palpable, and we see the effects of this in Bernadine’s personal life. She struggles to sleep at night and drinks heavily to cope. Her marriage to her husband Jonathan (Wendell Pierce) struggles as Bernadine reckons with the horrors to which she bears witness; her husband cannot understand the way her job affects her. While teacher Jonathan educates the next generation and gives them hope of a bright future, Bernadine is complicit in stealing the future away from countless men. She is not a sadist, but she is forced by the nature of her profession to carry out sadistic practices—and in the interest of appearing professional as a black woman in a position of power, she must do so unsentimentally. But her robotic demeanor is not necessarily a reflection of her true feelings toward the practice of execution, and viewers follow Bernadine as she struggles to mask her own humanity with professionalism.
Though the film explores Bernadine’s character most thoroughly, viewers are also given detailed glimpses of the emotional states of everyone involved in these executions, from the prison officers, to the prison chaplain, to the men on death row themselves. Aldis Hodge gives an incredibly moving performance as Anthony Woods, a prisoner awaiting execution who may be innocent of the murder of which he was convicted fourteen years ago. We see him slip between moments of desolation and glimmers of hope as he navigates the existential dread of being sentenced to death for a crime he maintains he did not commit and as he awaits any news on the painstakingly bureaucratic decision on his appeal, which determines whether he lives or dies. Hodge’s performance is complicated, heartbreaking, and totally affective. When Anthony feels hope, we feel hope; when he despairs, so do we.
Similarly, Richard Schiff gives a nuanced performance as Anthony’s lawyer Marty, a man whose career has been dedicated to appealing the death penalty and to fighting for clemency on behalf of his clients. Marty, having worked on such cases for 30 years, is downtrodden, resigned, and ready to retire. A man who was once passionate about the cause, Marty is tasked with finding hope and keeping spirits high for Anthony despite the almost futile odds of winning. In a visit to his client, he looks thoughtfully on as demonstrators outside the prison shout their support for Anthony, not as a man who is inspired by their words, but as a man who fears their protestations may be in vain. In a glum conversation with Bernadette, Marty poignantly explains the overwhelming stakes of being a death row inmate’s lawyer: “When I win, my client gets to not die.”
This film is disturbing and horrifying, to be sure, but in the way that 12 Years A Slave is. The doleful tone of Clemency is real—it reflects the experiences of people whose lives are affected by the inhumanity of the death penalty. It does not rely on gore and jump scares to disturb its viewers; rather, it forces viewers to confront the undignified reality of state-sanctioned murder. It is one thing to acknowledge the horrors of the world, to want to learn from tragedy and strive for betterness. But it is another thing entirely—a wholly more affective experience—to witness these horrors brought to life before your eyes. For this reason, Clemency should be required viewing for Americans at least, and for anyone who thinks they have an opinion on the death penalty.