REVIEW: Clemency [2019]

Score: 7/10 | ★ ★ ★


Rating: R | Runtime: 113 minutes | Release Date: December 27th, 2019 (USA)
Studio: Neon
Director(s): Chinonye Chukwu
Writer(s): Chinonye Chukwu

“I am alone and no one can fix it”

Stories about death row inmates are so often shown from the convict’s perspective and his/her question of guilt that it’s easy to look past certain details concerning the other side. I don’t mean the prosecution, though. I mean those whose careers force them to carry out the execution itself. An example: most films of this sort have protestors screaming outside the prison’s walls for someone to intervene and erase the death penalty from American law books and it seems natural because people get angry and passionate enough to want their voices heard. But who is listening in those instances? The press has their cameras rolling and voters at home are watching, but neither can save anyone right now. Only the governor can. They should be protesting city hall.

They choose this location for the emotional currency created by close proximity to the inmate. They want him/her to know someone cares. They want those who want the execution carried out to confront their hate. As soon as writer/director Chinonye Chukwu shifts the focus of her film Clemency from the man sentenced to death (Aldis Hodge‘s Anthony Woods) to the warden responsible for everything going off without a hitch (Alfre Woodard‘s Bernadine Williams), however, emotion makes way for pragmatism. They’re ostensibly yelling at this woman for doing her job because they believe she should do something she doesn’t have the power to do instead. Maybe they want her to quit. Maybe she wants to quit. The execution is happening regardless. Someone else will take her place.

Chukwu is therefore asking us to sympathize with Warden Williams’ plight considering the impossible position she’s in. After years of research and work as an advocate and teacher inside prisons, the filmmaker is helping us acknowledge the fact that state-sanctioned murder doesn’t only affect the families of a criminal and his/her victim. Just because the courts say the state is the party dirtying its hands by the act doesn’t mean Williams, her deputy (Richard Gunn‘s Thomas Morgan), officers (led by LaMonica Garrett‘s Major Cartwright), chaplain (Michael O’Neill‘s Kendricks), and medical advisors don’t find themselves haunted by nightmares from their complicity. Even if you can tell yourself that lethal injection is a “humane alternative,” it only takes one botched procedure before the walls you’ve built as psychological barriers crumble.

And that’s exactly how she begins her film: the worst-case scenario. Williams is into double digits on executions during her tenure as warden, so Victor Jimenez (Alex Castillo) shouldn’t feel any different than the others. She certifies what’s happening, talks to the witnesses, ascertains whether the inmate needs anything, and personally takes part as the sentence is carried out. Where she should simply have to nod her head to let everyone know it’s time for him/her to do their part, things go south straight away once the paramedic can’t find a vein. The ensuing scene is tough to watch because it throws back the curtain on what’s actually happening. It prevents those involved from extricating themselves from the tragedy. And it alters their perspective moving forward.

Maybe Williams would be okay with some time before the next one, but that’s not the case here. While the investigation into negligence remains open, Woods’ last appeal is denied. Williams couldn’t sleep without seeing Jimenez’s face and now her latest victim is added to that horror (and ours) after experiencing his wide-eyed and tearful despondency upon going through her checklist with him, fresh off the news he’s about to die. She tries to push it away with alcohol to no avail. She tries to hide her pain from her husband (Wendell Pierce), but the distance between them only grows as a result. Her entire list is unraveling because her respect for the job is no longer enough to shelter her heart from its dark reality.

This isn’t a film for everyone because many can’t have sympathy for people who choose to work at prisons with a death row. At one point Deputy Morgan mentions a warden opening at an institution without one and you can tell that’s the main reason why he’s itching to apply. It’s therefore tough to feel sorry for those pulling the switch because they’re willing participants of the system that allows it and should be held accountable as a result. It doesn’t matter if the guilt of it affects them or if they ultimately advocate against capital punishment upon retirement since the deed has already been done. But that viewpoint shouldn’t diminish the power of Woodard and company’s performances. It shouldn’t negate the human story Chukwu created.

Williams’ struggles might be the central focus, but Chukwu doesn’t forget about the rest. To make this woman face her personal demons means giving the supporting cast the passion to force her hand. It could come in the form of Woods’ lawyer (Richard Schiff‘s Marty) and his never quit attitude asking for compassion despite the futility of having to watch so many clients lose or Williams’ husband Jonathan saying enough is enough before threatening to leave if she’s not willing to do the same. There’s also a conference with Woods’ assumed victim’s family (Dennis Haskins and Vernee Watson) that intriguingly calls Williams out for the same reasons Marty does. Her objectivity may save her sleep, but it also paints her as villain to plaintiff, defendant, and, eventually, herself.

That leaves Woods—the man a lesser writer would render one-dimensional so we can have an easier time seeing the warden’s suffering as worthy of our empathy. Chukwu does the opposite by throwing the emotional kitchen sink at his head too. There’s the optimism his lawyer instills by saying clemency remains on the table because so much has happened since trial to make it difficult to believe he murdered the person they say he did and the eleventh hour return of the girlfriend he hasn’t spoken to in fifteen years (Danielle Brooks‘ Evette) leading to a gut-punch of a reunion behind glass. With years of hope colliding against these final days of emptiness, Woods is alternating between silence and screams. And Hodge magnificently imbues both with undeniable honesty.

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