Directed by: Chinoye Chukwu
Written by: Chinoye Chukwu
Starring: Alfre Woodard, Richard Schiff, Danielle Brooks, Michael O’Neill, Richard Gunn, Wendell Pierce
The death penalty has remained one of the more controversial issues from both sides of the political spectrum. Its merits are debated along with its ethical purpose in a just society. While films about this subject matter typically focus on the person on trial, lawyers, judge, and jury; Clemency squarely shows the impact on the executioner.
Well-known and respected as a warden, Bernadine (Alfre Woodard) fulfills her job requirements and when called upon has to carry out a state-sanctioned execution. An action that brings her no pleasure or popularity, but ultimately must be done. Now, a new inmate, Anthony (Aldis Hodge) awaits whether or not he will be sentenced to death, as public interest and media get involved.
This film’s opening completely sets the tone for what’s in store as it shows Bernadine standing by, as an inmate received the lethal injection sanctioned by the state. The man feverishly prays while the dose enters his system but the camera focuses on the face of Bernadine, which contains an emptiness. The injection does not properly stop the heart rate and a reaction from the inmate causes commotion from the audience watching it, prompting Bernadine to close the curtain as the inmate painfully dies. A harrowing sequence of events that shakes her to the core.
Focusing on the warden, or the executioner, in this process shows a person fighting with her duty and sheer disgust in the process. It presents an interesting character study for the character, Bernadine. A woman who can no longer feel human connection because she essentially pulls the plug on human life as part of her occupation. A decision not up to her, as judges and juries make the determination of someone’s death, which she must carry out. Bernadine has a husband at home that wants her to retire so they can enjoy their life together, but she feels this unrelenting sense of loneliness because her job requires actions others cannot stomach.
As the film continues, we get a look into her psyche and how she sees herself in the entire process of capital punishment. It comes to fruition with conversations regarding the next inmate potentially being put to death. She adamantly states that she treats these men with respect, which has truth to it. Bernadine fascinated me throughout the entire runtime of the film, as she questions everyone that berates her for the role she plays in the system. As she states, “you’re making this about good guys and bad guys.” It posits the idea of complicity within an unjust system and where it stops.
It goes without saying but Alfre Woodard as Bernadine delivered a calm but unnerving performance. While everyone else frets and stresses about events happening, she goes through everything with a level head. Much of the brilliance of the performance comes from face work Woodard employs, which tells the real story. Behind that illusion of calmness lies a woman trying to hold it together with a marriage that disinterests her and a lose-lose situation with an upcoming execution. Truly excellent work by the legendary actor.
Aldis Hodge also provides a heartbreaking performance as the inmate on the verge of execution, Anthony Woods. On trial for the death of a law enforcement officer, he swears his innocence as he awaits the possibility of clemency from the governor. Receiving clemency would save his life from being put to death and the anticipation builds suspense in the film. In a few short scenes, pure humanity exudes from Anthony, only making the wait even more distressing.
Quiet and proficient storytelling by writer/director Chinoye Chukwu makes each climactic moment leave a devastating impact. It allows you to meditate on what appears on screen and build suspense for how it ends. Such a good film controlled by a very complicated character in Bernadine, who refuses to let anyone in emotionally.