Alfre Woodard (Luke Cage, Captain America: Civil War) stars as Bernardine Williams, a hardened but increasingly disillusioned warden in a male prison, in alaskaLand director Chinonye Chukwu’s sobering new capital punishment drama. Clemency was inspired by the real-life story of high-profile inmate called Troy Davis, who was executed at a US State prison in 2011 after more than two decades on death row.
We first encounter Williams as she supervises the lethal injection of a death row inmate, a procedure which goes catastrophically wrong when the medics can’t find a suitable vein to administer the deadly concoction. What ensues is a painful and undignified death for the inmate in front of horrified witnesses and shocked prison staff.
Williams is unable to simply shake off such an upsetting incident, and events unravel further when Anthony Woods (an arresting performance by Aldis Hodge), who is the next inmate on the prison’s kill-list, is informed by his lawyer (The West Wing’s Richard Schiff) that he is to be put to death imminently. Meanwhile, Williams’ marriage to teacher Jonathan (The Wire‘s Wendell Pierce) is under threat when she refuses to consider a change of career.
Writer-director Chukwu’s devastating and complex character study advances the discourse around capital punishment beyond the usual contrived talking points. By focusing much of the story on those entrusted with conducting this undeniably barbaric task, she explores the psyches of those who have worked in the field and who have undoubtedly seen more than their fair share of trauma. During four years of background research for the film, Chukwu worked closely with retired death row wardens and guards who have since joined the fight against state-sanctioned killing.
At the heart of the film, against an admittedly downbeat narrative, lies a tender and fragile relationship between Williams (executioner) and Woods (prisoner). Bernardine finds it hard to ignore her own misgivings, and is constantly straddling the line between the rigidity demanded by the job and her need to find humanity even in the darkest places.
Up until now, Alfre Woodard’s long and fruitful career has been spent mostly in supporting roles, but Clemency finds her taking centre stage for once. The results are magnificent. She delivers each line of dialogue with poise and precision. Chukwu deserves equal acclaim for such a brave, emotionally charged drama about a sensitive subject that many filmmakers would shy away from tackling.
While there are obvious parallels to be drawn with the year’s other capital punishment drama Just Mercy, it is clear that Clemency presents a far more complex narrative. It’s a shame that, even after performing well at last year’s film festivals, Clemency was largely ignored in America when it was released at Christmas – and Woodard and Chukwu both failed to make the list of Oscar nominees. Nonetheless, this is a tour de force which will make you want to sit up and pay attention.
- Director: Chinonye Chukwu
- Starring: Alfre Woodard, Richard Schiff, Aldis Hodge
- Release date: July 17 (Digital)