In the first 11 minutes of Chinonye Chukwu’s Clemency, Death Row prison warden Bernadine Williams oversees a botched execution. She spends the remaining 100 coming unraveled as she awaits the next. The man en route to the gurney for lethal injection, Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge), has sat behind bars for 15 years, convicted of robbing a convenience store and gunning down a responding police officer. Evidence shows that Anthony is innocent of the murder, but evidence doesn’t matter to the state. Someone has to answer for the officer’s death. Might as well be Anthony.
Movies often invite empathy from their viewers. Clemency expressly asks for it, a rarity among 2019’s releases. Understanding for the person charged with figuratively flipping the switch is an active process, exercise for the mind and heart. Chukwu knows that she has to work for her audience’s pity. It helps that she has a gifted cast of actors equally as willing to do that work with her, of course. The strength of ensemble’s performances can’t be overstated, especially that of Woodard and Hodge—she one of the greatest actors of her generation, he on the path to becoming one of the greats of his own. Even with these talents at her disposal, Chukwu seems innately aware one must first acknowledge the nature of the systems her characters inhabit upfront. As a result, she invests in constructing her characters’ worlds first, and guiding their performances second.
Bernadine, ultimately, is trapped within the American prison industrial complex, too. To claim that she’s as much a victim as Anthony would be absurd, of course; when day turns to night, Bernadine gets to go home to her husband, Jonathan (Wendell Pierce), or hit the bar with her deputy warden, Thomas (Richard Gunn), while Anthony sits in his cell, as silent as the grave waiting for him at the end of his long, dehumanizing journey. But Chukwu’s film never equates them. Rather, it presents our country’s prison system as one big barbaric ecosystem created to strip all decency, hope and faith from the organisms living in its boundaries. Bernadine doesn’t pass the sentence. She swings the sword because the state would never send the judge to kill a man himself.
Clemency is about the toll hand-me-down state-sanctioned murder takes on the men and women responsible for administering it, not to mention the creeping terror felt by the person doomed to die. Chukwu finds a balance between Bernadine and Anthony, showing both care in proportion to their respective plights. If one must read the film as taking anyone’s side, it’s Anthony’s, but Chukwu embraces cinema as a tool for mining nuance instead of a gavel. Bernadine can’t sleep. She’s tormented by nightmares, where roles reverse and the dead man from the film’s opening scene stands ready to snatch the breath out of her. Bernadine can’t be intimate with Jonathan, either. Her only succor is poured from a bottle to a glass. She isn’t alone, either. Anthony’s own attorney, Marty (Richard Schiff), claims that this case will be his last; he’s going to retire and perhaps teach. Even the prison chaplain (Michael O’Neill) wants out.
Chukwu gives her picture a cool veneer to match the atmosphere of the prison where most of the narrative unfolds. It’s a place devoid of compassion by design. Bernadine approaches Anthony to tell him about the lethal injection drug cocktail he’ll be given on his last day, ticking off each component like she’s reading a recipe—one drug to render Anthony unconscious, one to paralyze him, one to stop his heart. She stands strong as steel as her eyes go liquid with emotion. Anthony aims his eyes at the ceiling, the way people do when they’re ignoring the person talking to them but don’t want to simply tell them they’re being ignored, and also the way people do when praying to a heavenly host that isn’t listening to them. It’s a stellar scene, bent around Chukwu’s craftsmanship and two imminently talented actors in conversation with each other through expression and minimal dialogue.
Clemency screened at Sundance last January, and is just now being released via Neon, its distributor. This is something of a shame, as Chukwu’s filmmaking is every bit as worthy of awards season notice as the studio’s marquee movies, Parasite and Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Clemency’s multilayered interrogation of what role capital punishment plays in a culture that claims to care about human life while discarding humanity for vengeance. The cost of crime and justice is too high. Everyone pays. No one walks.
Director: Chinonye Chukwu
Writer: Chinonye Chukwu
Starring: Alfre Woodard, Aldis Hodge, Richard Schiff, Wendell Pierce, Richard Gunn, Michael O’Neill, Danielle Brooks
Release Date: December 27, 2019
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.