It’s likely that audiences won’t come across a film this year that is more soul-crushing or grim as Clemency. Winner of the Sundance Grand Jury Prize, Chinonye Chukwu’s second feature is a hushed and constrictive tale about the morality of the death sentence in the United States; and whether the societal havoc that it wreaks is directly responsible for the minds of those who must carry the deed out as a form of a more arcane system of punishment.
Taking a man’s life is one of the most psychologically damaging acts that anyone could commit, and no-one understands that better than warden Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard). After her eleventh execution is botched due to a prisoner’s refusal to drink water for their medication, she begins to crack under the realization that all of these deaths she’s been culpable with, have been haunting her. All of this comes crashing down on her head just as convict — though possibly innocent police killer — Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge) is handed a death sentence with only the slightest possibility of clemency in the horizon. As Bernadine undergoes the process of preparing Woods to be executed, her increasing guilt may just lead up to be the final death sentence she carries out.
Should distributor NEON play their cards right, it’s likely that Woodard will walk away from next year’s Academy Awards with a statuette in her hands for playing Bernadine. She gives a striking quiet storm of a performance, letting her thunderous emotions barely show under the battle-worn mask she wears, while on the job and at home. The supporting cast surrounding her is excellent, especially Hodge. But this is ultimately Woodard’s show, and she brings down the house. Clemency is a mournful and uncomfortable depiction of a woman’s belief system crumbling in the face of various immoral yet legal acts of apathy.
Clemency screened at the 55th Chicago International Film Festival as part of the International Competition, Women in Cinema, and Black Perspectives programs. The film will screen again on Saturday October 19th at 7:45pm at AMC River East 21