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Clemency Envelopes Us All in Destructive Darkness

Photo by Paul Sarkis for NEON

Many people who have witnessed a cruder form of capital punishment, be that a hanging or the electric chair, will affirm the recoiling revulsion of that experience. Feigning a higher level of supposed civilization, the lethal injection method is a colder and more meticulous process. If one wanted to know how lethal injection works, a simple search query could send them to an extensive article from How Stuff Works. In eight parts, the author spells out each step in a nearly clinical fashion.  

While those researched details are very much accurate and educational, what it does not measure or report is the emotional component. No article can contain all of that, and the revulsion is little lessened. Nevertheless, the opening scene of Clemency does its damnedest to portray and evoke those possible nerves.  

The viewer walks down the nondescript prison corridors with the black woman in the top position of authority, Warden Bernadine Williams, played by the incomparable Alfre Woodard.  She, a chaplain (character actor veteran Michael O’Neill), and her uniformed employees are leading a man to his death. Shot scoreless, you hear it all. The beeping of the heart monitor nearby announces the progress of the convict’s rapid breathing and whimpering sobs.  Across the glass, silent witnessed are joined by the helpless and anguished cries of family members. After a “Hail Mary” announces “pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death,” final words are shared, buttons are pushed, and intravenous tubes begin to fill.

Compared to the How Stuff Works article, this is a frigid reality more than pomp and circumstance or a checklist of procedures. If you don’t feel the unease of this scene, you don’t have a pulse any quicker than the dead man on the table. Because, standing like a sentinel exuding a poker face of body language is Bernadine. Her expression never changes, wavers, or bends.  The woman’s adamant level of control is clear.

Warden Bernadine Williams oversees the preparation of a convict for lethal injection.
Photo courtesy of NEON

Bernadine has done this before, nearly a dozen times as we later learn.  This maddening march is her routine. This is her profession. However, when something goes wrong, the turbid agony Bernadine works so hard to contain gives way.

Clemency guides us through the troubling repercussions of what occurs. The responsible power Bernadine exudes at her workplace hides shattered mettle underneath. Her relationship with her husband Jonathan (TV regular Wendell Pierce) sputters from her detachment and demon-drowning dependencies.  He suggests retirement and she won’t hear of it.

This has to be one of the steepest varieties of work-related stress possible. Bernadine is not taking care of this escalating affliction and has the feverish nightmares trading with draining insomnia to show for it. Imagine being the one trying to lead the rehabilitation cases of hundreds, all with the possibility of needing the take the life of one at a time  Imagine having to deliver that news, explain those details, and make those arrangements. Nearly as soon as the opening execution settles, the next number is called and the gauntlet of grief begins again.

Anthony Woods is a convicted cop-killer who may quite well be wrongfully imprisoned. His lawyer Marty Lumetta (Richard Schiff) and gathering protesters implore that very sentiment. Aldis Hodge, who wonderfully portrayed the freedom-seeking title character in Brian Banks last summer, dials up his stoic strength again only to a higher level as Woods. The actor is given an outstanding range of interactions. His refusal to communicate with Warden Williams creates confrontations of quiet power. Those tense moments are countered by his “I say when I die” outpouring of hope towards reprieve. Hodge drops solitary tears like bombs from the sky.  

This film’s title is both a narrative goal and a moral-defining obstacle. Dictionary.com reminds what many already know, namely “an act or deed of showing mercy or leniency.” The harder level is earning and expressing the character trait equaling the “disposition to show forbearance, compassion, or forgiveness in judging or punishing” portion of the definition.

Clemency, the Grand Jury Prize winner of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, is an unshy treatise on the state of the death penalty. Where you fall on that societal issue undoubtedly fuels your reception to the film. There’s no way it couldn’t.  

That said, writer/director Chinoye Chukwu did not make this movie, her second feature and first in seven years since Alaska-Land, with torches and pitchforks. By staying within the two very different, yet ominous, slow marches of Bernadine and Anthony towards unavoidable finality, Chukwu keeps matters taut with shrewd cinematography from short film specialist Eric Banco and a dirge of tone from composer Kathryn Bostic (Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am). The film may not rebound to match that blistering opening, but the intrigue is strong throughout.

All the while, here is Alfre Woodard staring holes through the most leaden armor. If the Oscars were to come calling, and they should if they had any sense, it would be Alfre’s first nomination in 37 years (Cross Creek) and her first leading one. Her hefty performance steps deeper into the accumulating difficulties that have come to beset the unflappable leader she portrays. Her character has to show collapse, but the performer never falters her requirements. Alfre is beyond compelling in taking on all of the destructive darkness this character envelopes around us all.

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Written by Don Shanahan

DON SHANAHAN is a Chicago-based and Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic writing on his website "Every Movie Has a Lesson" and also on Medium.com for the MovieTime Guru publication. He is also weekly movie trends columnist and occasional podcast contributor for the "Feelin' Film" podcast. As an middle school educator by day, Don writes his movie reviews with life lessons in mind, from the serious to the farcical. He is a proud director and one of the founders of the Chicago Indie Critics and a member of the nationally-recognized Online Film Critics Society.

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