'Clemency': Film Review | Sundance 2019

Eric Branco/Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Alfre Woodard in 'Clemency'
A measured advocacy drama with the capacity to change minds.

Alfre Woodard plays a prison warden internalizing the psychological and emotional weight of her responsibility over state executions in writer-director Chinonye Chukwu's death-row drama.

Probing close-ups of Alfre Woodard open and close Clemency, the admirable restraint and extraordinary stillness of her deeply felt performance resonating even in scenes when her character, prison warden Bernadine Williams, is offscreen. She is the burdened conscience of writer-director Chinonye Chukwu's powerful drama, but it's the humanity and compassion invested across all the principal characters that makes this contemplative examination of the terrible weight of taking a life so commanding. Elegantly shot in widescreen compositions loaded with meaning, the film is a tad drawn out, but it's never less than engrossing and often acutely affecting.

Starting with a sober yet emotional pre-titles sequence showing a botched state execution in agonizing detail, this is a tough watch, and its core audience is likely to be people already ethically opposed to the death penalty. However, Chukwu, the founder of a filmmaking collective dedicated to teaching and empowering incarcerated women, who worked as a volunteer on a number of clemency appeal cases, states her position with articulate economy and without preachiness. Even some who are pro-capital punishment might find this persuasive food for thought.

The hook for any distributor taking on such challenging material will be the towering performance of Woodard, which ranks among the best of this fine actor's career. Everything we need to know is written across Bernadine's eyes as she sits with dignified composure waiting for the final word from the Governor's office on a prisoner's fate; as she walks the corridor approaching the execution room, her face a mask of stoical responsibility; or as she silently surveys the gurney on which the condemned man will be strapped down before the lethal injection is administered. That makes the too-literal nightmare sequences spelling out her anxieties seem like superfluous false notes. But those touches are minor blemishes on an otherwise expertly wrought character study.

The media attention and public outcry from mistakes made in the film's dramatic prelude heighten tension around the approaching execution of Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge), a still-young African-American man convicted of shooting a police officer during a convenience store robbery 15 years earlier. His death will be the 12th that Bernadine has overseen during her years at the maximum security prison, the location of which is never identified. "I do my job," she says calmly at one point, when asked how she can continue. "I give these men respect all the way through."

The warden's perspective dominates the film to a degree rarely if ever seen in death-row screen dramas, but Chukwu demonstrates an even hand by folding in several other key points of view, fleshed out in equally nuanced performances. They include that of Marty Lumetta (Richard Schiff), the attorney who maintains his client's innocence, seemingly backed up by lack of hard evidence. He has kept Woods' hope alive through the long appeals process, even as the emotional cost has worn him down, prompting him to plan for retirement after this case.

Then there's Woods himself, played with relatively few words but with quiet strength by Hodge, whose rangy, coiled physicality makes the pain of his silent tears cut deeper. Only in exchanges with his lawyer does he become voluble, revealing the gratitude and generosity of spirit of a decent man. He has a number of intensely moving scenes, perhaps none more so than when Evette (Danielle Brooks, terrific), his high school-age girlfriend at the time of his arrest, comes to visit him after distancing herself through his trial and for years after, finally revealing her reasons and giving him momentary new cause for hope. Even the comparatively small role of the prison chaplain (Michael O’Neill) adds further shades of empathy to the complex picture.

But the chief focus is the staggering toll of the job on Bernadine. The gravity of her position is inescapable, amplified by the shouts of "I am Anthony Woods" from the protestors outside the prison perimeter, audible from her office. Chukwu shows the strain on her marriage to schoolteacher Jonathan (the always wonderful Wendell Pierce) as he fights for their union despite her emotional unavailability, her after-work drinking and increasing insomnia. In some moments she almost seems closer to her deputy warden (Richard Gunn). "I need a pulse, Bernardine," Jonathan tells her in one sorrowful plea. Even when she does open up to him about her corrosive doubts, asking if he believes Anthony Woods is guilty, she still doesn't really let him in, telling him, "I am alone, and nobody can fix it."

Bernadine's scenes with Anthony are some of the film's best, as she goes point by point over the preparations for and procedural details of his execution, maintaining professional detachment while indicating her sympathy in unspoken ways. In most of these encounters his pride makes him refuse to acknowledge her, but even without the tears it's clear that her words are registering. And when he finally does respond to her kindness with a simple "thank you" after he's suffered a crushing personal blow, the effect is shattering. The impact of this key relationship being between a black woman and a black man requires no additional commentary, though it tacitly underscores the way the American justice system is stacked against people of color. 

Backed by the unimpeachable integrity of Woodard's work, Chukwu deftly avoids melodrama for the most part, even if touches like having Jonathan read the opening lines of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man to his students feel borderline heavy-handed. Likewise, an explosion of anger from the dead cop's mother (Vernee Watson), demanding an additional seat in the execution observation room, seems slightly out of character with the subdued tone that defines the movie. But the filmmaker's serious intent is undeniable, all the more so because she frames her cause-driven argument in such personal terms.

From the sparing use of Kathryn Bostic's subtle score to Phyllis Housen's fluid editing, this is a superbly crafted film, particularly in terms of its visual sense. The graceful movement of Eric Branco's camera, with especially masterful use of reverse pans, displays a sensitivity to the subject matter that considerably enhances Clemency's emotional and psychological depth. And if Chukwu perhaps overextends the devastating gut punch of an ending, there's no arguing with the final shot of Bernadine's face. It leaves us wondering long after about where this staunch woman, embodying both fortitude and suffering, can go to find redemption within herself.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Dramatic Competition)
Production company: Ace Pictures Entertainment, in association with Big Indie, Bronwyn Cornelius Productions
Cast: Alfre Woodard, Richard Schiff, Aldis Hodge, Wendell Pierce, Danielle Brooks, Michael O’Neill, Richard Gunn, Vernee Watson, Dennis Haskins, LaMonica Garrett, Michelle C. Bonilla
Director-screenwriter: Chinonye Chukwu
Producers: Bronwyn Cornelius, Julian Cautherley, Peter Wong, Timur Bekbosunov
Executive producers: Annie Chang, Calvin Choong, Johnny Chang, Emma Lee, Alfre Woodard, Kathryn Bostic
Director of photography: Eric Branco
Production designer: Margaux Rust
Costume designer: Suzanne Barnes
Music: Kathryn Bostic
Editor: Phyllis Housen
Casting: Kerry Barden, Paul Schnee
Sales: Paradigm Agency

112 minutes