Runtime: 112 Minutes
Director/Writer: Chinonye Chukwu
Stars: Alfre Woodard, Richard Schiff, Aldis Hodge
By Lewis Robertson
As we see racist police injustices highlighted across America, it’s challenging to imagine how the murders of minority groups would unfold if they were done over a longer length of time, if there was conversation and contemplation surrounding the decision to end a human life. “Clemency” (2019) addresses these curiosities with impactful performances led by an experienced, established actor, and an eye-opening composition orchestrated by a director unafraid to tackle the deeply uncomfortable topics under the skin of the United States of America.
“Clemency” revolves around black prison warden Bernadine Williams, and her haunting task in overseeing the execution of death row inmates. Bernadine resists the moral urge to abandon her duty, and Alfre Woodard tackles the intimidating challenge of performing doubt, uncertainty, and a distinct disgust with the unjust brutality of the situation before her, all while clinging to her civic calling.
Even as the lethal injection is administered, and government officials hover ominously over a dying man, she projects intense feelings of inner battle with facial expressions only, playing off the reaction of the hostile beeping of the heart monitor. The film’s central power lies in Woodard’s moving depiction of a woman torn apart by conflict.
Fledgling writer/director Chinonye Chukwu is making the rounds of film festivals for the first time, helming a handful of masterful performances, and balancing them with her own distinct shot-work. The contrast of the Warden’s black skin against the clinical white bars of death row tell the viewers all they must know about the aberration of a black female executioner, foreshadowing our protagonist’s inability to reckon with the barbaric treatment of the marginalised, and the cinematography lays out the themes of these incompatible identities clashing.
Characters are often at the centre of the shot, the hardcore focus asserting the brutally straight lines of the prison, especially when the environment whirls around them, characterising their intense meditation in their trapped spaces, both physical and existential.
“The concept of humane capital punishment is immediately revealed to be a fallacy in the opening scene, where a botched execution looks as painful physically as it is emotionally.”
The plot follows the upcoming execution of quiet inmate Anthony Woods, whose public assertion of his innocence has turned him into a controversial media sensation. While Bernadine’s inability to cope with the upcoming killing manifests as alcoholism and matrimonial feuds, actor Aldis Hodge defines his institutional victim by his silence.
His overwhelmed reaction to the conditions of his death, his reflection on images of birds flying free, even his suicidal attempt to claim any kind of mortal agency, are all memorable moments where Hodge does not speak a word, and his complex emotions delivered only by his quaking, heartbroken expression. The actors speak in silence, bolstering the film’s theme of being seen and heard as a real person, in an America that strips identity away on the basis of race.
Of the several themes, many of them mature topics bravely tackled by a director with an adolescent filmography, the centremost is America’s untenable attitude to death. The concept of humane capital punishment is immediately revealed to be a fallacy in the opening scene, where a botched execution looks as painful physically as it is emotionally. Even the blank and sterile setting is painted with dread, as the fear of dying inmates is palpable, highlighting that this is execution by torture – Even if it is not the torture we expect.
The institution is a hypocritical one, where an increasing number of characters distance themselves from the ritualistic killing of inmates – An administrative underling played by Thomas Morgan breaches a prison taboo by volunteering to be strapped to the gurney where subjects die during a rehearsal, and even Anthony Woods’ lawyer and former lover both wish to abandon the trials of being attached to a dying man.
“The film’s central power lies in Woodard’s moving depiction of a woman torn apart by conflict.”
The warden’s attachment to her civic calling robs her of her humanity, and her husband describes himself as living with a shell of a wife, one without a pulse. Chukwu’s powerful message is revealed, that people are not designed to kill other people, and with each dose of the fatal chemical, the wardens forswear a portion of their own lives in the process.
“Clemency” does not perfectly reflect the conflict and discord we see permeating the streets of America today, there is no dynamism or action, there isn’t even the promise of revolution – Only escape. The actors convey the pain heaped upon the victims and the killers, tearing apart the institutional killing of the USA’s most overlooked masses.
Disharmony plagues each character, and Bernadine represents an oxymoron, an inevitable disaster highlighting women of colour’s strong sense of patronage and power, but ultimate inability to send their own people to the grave. The victims of America’s bloodlust can only hope that they’d be shepherded between life and death by a strong, black woman, torn between her duty and her identity, as that is the fairest judgement they could ever receive.