There are two anti-capital punishment films opening this week. One is “Just Mercy” (see review under Film and Search) and the other is “Clemency,” the one about which I was completely enthusiastic when it was among those showcased at this year’s New Films/New Directors series. “Clemency,” directed by Chinonye Chukwu, arrives with the credential of having won the Jury Prize in the U.S. dramatic competition at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. It is a wrenching drama dealing with capital punishment from a two-pronged perspective.
Alfre Woodard gives a memorable, deeply felt performance as Bernadine Williams, a prison warden who has been overseeing executions on death row in an unidentified state. First, it is unusual to have an African-American woman warden in a prison yarn. This one is told from the perspective of both the warden and a prisoner who is scheduled to die for a crime he insists he did not commit. The film is more concerned with the issue of capital punishment than with the alleged crime itself or the guilt or innocence question. Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge) has admitted taking part in a robbery but denies having fired the gun that led to a fatality.
“Clemency” opens with a harrowing botched execution in which a condemned man suffers greatly before he can be pronounced dead. Warden Williams is sickened by it, and has become increasingly upset with the responsibility of putting people to death. However, she is committed to work scrupulously by the book and do her job professionally no matter what.
The drama intensifies when Williams becomes closer to Anthony, the next prisoner set to be killed. He is given a powerful performance by Hodge, who veers from stoicism to an attempt at suicide. One becomes deeply involved in Woods’ plight in response to Hodge’s mesmerizing acting. His lawyer is desperately trying hard to save his life, and Williams clearly would like that to happen, but she has to go through with the execution if clemency is not granted.
The build-up is extremely intense, and there are complications, as a woman with whom Woods has had a son comes forward to talk with him after keeping a low profile to protect the boy and her from the stigma. Meanwhile, widespread protests have been taking place, and they are described by his lawyer to make Woods feel that he is not alone and will at least be remembered if he is denied clemency.
While we are led to feel sympathy for Woods, we are also induced to sympathize with the warden as she gets more and more upset about the idea of the state putting people to death and her role in the process. The job takes a toll on relations between her and her husband Jonathan, well-played by Wendell Pierce.
“Clemency” emerges as one of the important films of this year and on my Best Ten list as capital punishment is increasingly debated, evidenced, for example, by the temporary moratorium on executions declared by the governor of California. The film is extremely well done and lands like a punch in the gut.
Woodard merits award consideration in the best actress category and Hodge gives what should also be considered as an award-worthy performance. A Neon release. Reviewed December 25, 2019.