Clemency (2019) - Chinonye Chukwu
In the opening moments of Clemency, experienced, stoic and professional prison warden Bernadine Williams is overseeing another execution of a death row inmate. As she watches on whilst her team of guards, and a medical professional attempt to administer the lethal injection that will end this man's life things don't go according to plan. As witnesses, including the man's family, watch on in horror, a crack seems to appear in the steely facade of Bernadine. It's an excruciating sequence that works on many levels. The cold, calculated way in which death row inmates' lives are ended. The procedural necessity of the process. The number of humans responsible and involved in the process. Although Bernadine has had no input or influence into the decision that has led to this moment, and she, like her staff is merely carrying out their duties, it's impossible not to be shocked and devastated by the reality that human life is about to be ended. We never learn for what crime this inmate has been sentenced to death, because ultimately, at that moment, it doesn't matter. We later learn that Bernadine, in her time as warden, has overseen the execution of more than ten men, and finally it appears the experience is beginning to take it tolls. The next execution will possibly be the one that not only breaks her.
It's an astonishing start that sets out both the style and tone of the film and its lead character. Bernardine Williams played with astonishing restraint and emotional depth by Alfre Woodard is a woman who is fastidious, focused, professional, and detached. All strengths in her role as a prison warden, but also all defence mechanisms that help her navigate this world and the psychological effects it has on her. She's worked in this role for years and has clearly built strong personal and professional relationships with her staff, including the prison chaplain (played by Michael O'Neill). It's also clear that she receives a lot of respect from her staff, most notably second in command Thomas Morgan, who is up for a promotion to the warden at another prison; one he pointedly notes doesn't have death row patients. At home, Bernardine's life is much more strained and the emotional distance that protects her at work has created a rift with her loving and devoted husband, Jon (played by the always dependable Wendell Pierce). The emotional and psychological defences she's built to survive her work have meant their relationship is on the rocks, and her latest death row inmate will force Bernardine and Jon to challenge why she continues in this job.
The central story Bernardine finds herself in focuses on Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge), a quiet man who is on death row for the murder of a police officer, though he maintains his innocence. Pestering Bernardine is Woods' lawyer, Marty. Like Bernardine, he has become world-weary and despite maintaining positivity with his client, has opted to retire once this case ends. Despite his valiant efforts and pleading with Bernardine, she can do nothing to help him, and the fate of Woods rests in increasing senior members of the judicial system. Bernardine is merely a cog in this machine and must conform with the decisions of superiors far above her. Interestingly they all remain nameless and offscreen. It is Bernardine who has to bear the brunt of these conversations and be the face of the institution that has determined Woods must die.
Unhelpfully, as the story unfolds, and Bernardine runs through the motions of preparing Woods for his execution, doubts begin to emerge in her mind about this man's guilt. These ideas and thoughts don't help her navigate the stress of her power and responsibility grant her; being sanctioned to order a man's death. The growing media attention, protests outside the prison, pleas from the family of the dead officer, and the emotional state of her staff all begin to weigh too heavily on her shoulders. Then a former girlfriend contacts Woods and reveals that he is a father, giving him a reason to hope that clemency may yet arrive.
What makes all of these events and developments so astonishing, and tough to watch, is how Woodard's performance and Chinonye Chukwu's direction are so controlled and restrained. There are no grandstanding moments here. No last-minute reprieves or emotional speeches about the system or the death penalty. Instead, the film unfolds in rather ordinary and mundane moments; Bernardine asking Woods what he would like for his last meal, refusing requests to be present at the execution because the viewing room is at full capacity, a cold, uncomfortable dress rehearsal of the execution.
Despite the ordinary nature of the scenes, there is absolutely nothing ordinary about the film. It's a stark, subtle, and understated masterpiece of control, restraint, and calculation. But one which is also never at risk of moralising its subject matter. This is not a film about whether the death penalty should exist, but rather an uncomfortably in[depth and disturbing honest, and emotional character study of a woman whose job is to oversee the execution of the death penalty. It's never about the guilt or innocence of Woods, although the defense's case is compelling and believable, and the devotion admirable. It's also never played as a tense, nail-biting thriller about whether that 11th-hour call for clemency will come. As the final scene unfolds as Bernardine begins to grip on her tightly controlled exterior, it's irrelevant really whether or not Woods dies because we are witnessing a woman at breaking point with no recourse or points of reference to navigate the experiences she been through.
Chukwu's direction, along with Eric Branco's photography and Phyllis Housen's editing, help demonstrate how adrift Bernardine finds herself. She is constantly framed alone, small in the screen, overwhelmed by her world and environment. She is often deep within the frame, even when moving through. You begin to wonder whether, if the thrust of the story didn't keep her moving, she would gradually fade away into the background of the shot.
Clemency is an overwhelming masterpiece that contains one of recent cinema's great performances and demonstrates that Chinonye Chukwu is one of the most assured and confident directors working today.