Updated: Feb 9, 2020
Clemency is a message movie skillful enough to not feel like one. It is an anti-death penalty drama that never preaches. It is about the people touched by a single case, specific people, and what it does to their lives. The commentary is certainly there, yet it comes through their lives, not emotional speeches. This is a tender, respectful, powerful, movie that cares for its subjects. It does not manipulate. It makes its arguments carefully, with nuance. It did not get the marketing push of Just Mercy, another recent drama arguing against the death penalty. That is unfortunate because it is much better, more moving, more honest and impactful. It would be a shame if it disappeared from theaters as quietly as it entered them. It is definitely worth seeking out.
Bernadine is a prison warden. One of her duties, the least pleasant, is to prepare and oversee executions by lethal injection. Anthony Woods is an inmate, on death row for murder. His lawyer continues to fight, but time is running out. The odds of him being spared by the state are getting slimmer by the day. Clemency (107 minutes without the end credits) focuses not on what they represent, but who they are and how they are changed by Anthony’s looming execution.
This is challenging subject matter writer/director Chinonye Chukwu handles delicately. This is really a character study that happens to be looking at two very different characters. Bernadine is a by-the-book warden who treats her inmates and employees with respect. The opening scene, showing an execution, is painful and difficult to watch, for the viewer and for Bernadine. Though she is not the executioner, nor the person responsible for giving the order, she is in charge of carrying it out. That eats away at her, taking a great toll on her relationship with her husband. Anthony is effected on the other side of the needle. He is caught somewhere between hope and hopelessness. As plans are being made for his final days, his lawyer keeps telling him it is not over.
What is interesting is that Chukwu does not make either of them a hero or a villain. Yes, Bernadine follows the court’s ruling. Still, she has no stake in these deaths. She has no assumptions about anyone’s guilt or lack thereof. That is not her job. Her job is to make sure, if this has to happen, it is implemented as humanely as possible. Judgments have already been made; she is just trying to run a prison as fairly as she can.
This is not about guilt or innocence. Anthony was convicted for an armed robbery that ended in murder. There is some evidence casting doubt on whether he pulled the trigger, meaning he is guilty of something, but perhaps undeserving of the death penalty. Regardless, Clemency is not a legal drama. The system works the way it does and these two lives follow its commands.
This is a very well-made movie, lifted even higher by two strong performances that were sadly overlooked during this awards season. Aldis Hodge brings a finely tuned intensity to Anthony. While he is angry, at himself and the world, he tries to keep it inside. When it comes out, his pain is so deep, so visceral, that we do not need to know a lot about him to understand how he feels. He could have been a plot device, but Chukwu sees him, allowing Hodge to play him as a man instead of a concept.
Bernadine is given life by Alfre Woodard in one of the best performances of 2019. She gains purpose from what she does; it is important. Her husband sees the damage her job has done to her, but she is nothing without it. Dealing with Anthony in the aftermath of a botched execution gives her a clarity that somehow makes life even harder. Her arc is fascinating and it all builds up to a shot so incredible, displaying so much trust between director and actor. It is the perfect way to show where the journey has taken Bernadine. That moment alone should have been enough to earn Alfre Woodard an Oscar nomination.
Where other movies on this subject try to sway you to their side by stacking the odds in their favor with one-dimensional villains or angelic heroes, Clemency creates fully formed, flawed, human, characters and shows the effect the death penalty has on them. Chukwu takes advantage of the strength of her screenplay and the talent of her cast, never getting in the way with her direction. That sounds like a back-handed compliment (“she did a good job because she stayed out of the way”); knowing when to insert your style and when not to is a skill. One she demonstrates very well here. I was unaware of Chinonye Chukwu before Clemency. Now I eagerly anticipate her next project.
4½ out of 5
Alfre Woodard as Warden Bernadine Williams
Aldis Hodge as Anthony Woods
Wendell Pierce as Jonathan Williams
Richard Schiff as Marty Lumetta
Written and Directed by Chinonye Chukwu