Dir.: Chinonye Chukwu; Cast: Alfre Woodard, Aldis Hodge, Richard Schiff, Danielle Brooks, Michael O’Neill, Wendell Pierce, Richard Gunn, Vernee Watson; USA 2019, 113 min.
Director/writer Chinonye Chukwu certainly knows her subject. The founder of a filmmaking collective dedicated to teaching incarcerated women, she has also worked as a volunteer on many clemency appeal cases. But despite a towering performance by Alfre Woodard in the lead role, Clemency is surprisingly under-whelming.
Bernadine Williams (Chukwu) is the chief warden of a High Security prison, facing the twelfth execution of her tenure. The previous one was a botched job, the anaesthetic injection and lethal substance just didn’t work. So Williams was forced to close the curtains between the execution chamber and the witness booth to the chagrin of family members.
Case number twelve is a certain Anthony Woods (Hodge), on death row for more than a decade after killing a police officer – even though he maintains his innocence. The proceedings will test Bernadine to the last: Defence attorney Marty Lumetta (Schiff), also a fighter, and like Bernadine, on his final job before retirement. He’s hoping for a reprieve for his client. Meanwhile her deputy (Gunn) is going for another job in a prison without an execution facility. The Prison Chaplain (O’Neill), is equally disenchanted and opting for a transfer.
Bernadine is somehow left high and dry, her co-workers making her look cold and over-efficient. Her school teacher husband (Pierce) is sententious but not unsympathetic. Reading Ralph Ellison’s ‘Invisible Man’ to his students, he clearly considers himself special and somehow shames his wife into re-examining their marriage, driving her to the bottle with his prim attitude. Bernadine also has to deal with histrionics from the dead policeman’s mother (Watson), and by now we have come to understand Bernadine is fighting a one-woman battle, the writer/director letting her down badly, somehow making her look incapable. Meanwhile Woods’ discovers he is now a father, and the demonstrators outside the prison are getting louder as the day of execution approaches.
Clemency is a heavy film to watch not because of its subject matter but because it is seriously down on its heroine despite her diligent and likeable personality. Eric Branco provides stylish, if somewhat over-symbolic, widescreen images and Kathryn Bostic’s score is subtle. Despite all this it feels as if Chukwu has abandoned the quietly thoughtful heroine Bernadine in favour of those who question the system. AS
GRAND JURY PRIZE | Sundance Film Festival | FRIDAY 17 JULY 2020 | CURZON HOME CINEMA