Sundance was filled with a plethora of feel good and lighthearted films, filling its viewers with hope in a moment of despair (this was during the last breathes of the government shutdown). Director Chinonye Chukwu‘s Clemency, her second feature film, was not a Sundance rainbow. No. Clemency is a very tough watch — exposing the inequities of the justice system and the psychological terror of impending death on not just the executed, but the executioners — in sharp relief. As a character study, it’s incredible. As a study of death row, it’s necessary.
The film opens with Warden Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard) preparing for the execution of an inmate. Tellingly, of the two prisoners presented on death row in Clemency — of the two pleading for a Governor’s reprieve — both are minorities. Here, it’s Victor Jimenez (Alex Castillo). While we’re given an array of tight frames, close-ups and mid-shots, of Jimenez being strapped down and of the paramedic trying various body parts to find a vein, we’re also shown the fear on his face. We don’t know whether he’s guilty or innocent, we just know his fear. And the unflinching eye of the camera that captures the execution: and its shocking events —haunts us with the same regard as all the previous executions have haunted Warden Williams.
We enter Clemency at Warden Williams’ psychological and emotional nadir. She has witnessed many executions, but they have begun to take a toll on her. Williams regularly drinks with her Deputy Warden (Richard Gunn), basically self-medicating her emotions. She’s drifting away from her husband Johnathan (Wendell Pierce), both occupying a now mirthless marriage. All the while, there’s a prisoner named Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge): the next to be executed — whose question of guilt really is a question.
Chukwu’s script is tightly wound, methodically examining the mental state of those touched by this impending event. Abolitionist first began the argument that slavery was as bad for the slave owner as the slave, that slavery caused an otherwise normal person to become vicious when they controlled the fate and value of another person. In some ways, Chukwu’s examination of death row’s impact on those working within the system mirrors the previous assertion. No. None of those participating will die like the prisoner strapped to the table, but they will slowly die emotionally — with some drinking more, some leaving or retiring — like Deputy Warden Morgan, Chaplain Kendricks (Michael O’Neill), and Wood’s lawyer (Richard Schiff) — and some flat out not performing, such as Major Cartwright (LaMonica Garrett).
These burdens provide intrinsically emotive performances up and down the cast, especially from Hodge and Woodward. Hodge has to run the full spectrum, from anger, to hope, to resignation — transitioning from ruminative, to impenetrable, to an improbable and delirious excitement. His mental state experiences a tremendous shift when his former girlfriend, and mother of his child, Evette (Danielle Brooks) comes to visit him. Chukwu’s creation of the character is so contained and refreshing, presenting a woman who has lived for herself and her child rather than through the man she was once with.
And of course, there’s Woodard’s quiet and devastating performance anchoring this film. There’s an abundance of detail in her and Chukwu’s work here, such as her blocking in the execution scenes. Clemency is a film filled with micro-moments that are seismic in nature, and Woodward handles each with initial stoicism, giving way to fraught and haggard emotions. Woodward’s best moment, in a film filled many, arrives when she finally succumbs to her repressed weariness. Chukwu, much like the initial execution scene, does not falter. She holds the camera on Woodward’s face, holding as the facade melts away, holding as the realization of the moment takes over. It’s an incredible shot at the right moment.
While Chukwu’s Clemency has been closely compared to Tim Robbins‘ Dead Man Walking, the resemblance between the two only holds thematically. Chukwu’s film more precisely examines the psychological impact of executions. Anthony Woods isn’t looking for spiritual guidance. To a point, he’s resigned to death. Woods is searching for a family, for closure, while Warden Williams is just trying to survive. Their intertwining dilemmas, mortally and morally, exemplify a flawed and outmoded system — and makes Clemency into a profound and required statement.