Clemency (written and directed by Chinonye Chukwu) follows prison warden Bernadine Williams (played wonderfully by Alfre Woodard) as she struggles to deal with the psychological implications of carrying out death row executions. (DLH: 4/5)
Review by FF2 Associate Dayna Hagewood
Clemency opens with an immediate feeling of claustrophobia as Warden Bernadine walks down a stark hallway, scans her identification card, and closes the bars behind her. She walks into a room with a medical table covered in heavy leather straps and stares at it. Right at the start, Clemency reveals exactly what it is, a stark prison film with long bouts of silence, the eerie passage of time, and the psychological turmoil that carrying out executions brings to the employees involved.
When the first execution of the film goes horribly wrong and the medic improperly inserts the lethal injection, the prisoner on the table dies an incredibly painful death. This scene demonstrates that lethal injection can indeed have implications, and this is the film’s first warning sign. Long takes on Bernadine’s face in close up seem to reveal all of the emotions swimming through her head. Though she is an intense character, we can instantly tell that this process has taken a severe toll on her mental state.
It must be said that Bernadine’s facial expressions are the crowning achievement of Clemency. Her ability to convey what is happening psychologically through sparse facial movements is incredible. Within these shots, we are able to see a flurry of contradictions. She is strong, but severely impacted by watching prisoners die. Though she feels helpless in her situation, she maintains control by dictating whether or not prisoners can have visitors (almost heartlessly despite being genuinely upset by the situation herself).
When the next prisoner is scheduled for execution, we truly see Bernadine start to spiral. Anthony Woods (played marvelously by Aldis Hodge) was convicted at the age of 15 for allegedly killing a police officer. At this point, Clemency revolves back and forth between Bernadine and Anthony as they both struggle with the verdict and hope for clemency. Even though Bernadine never says it, she has multiple conversations with various characters that chip away at her hard exterior. This is another amazing feature of Clemency. Bernadine never fully states that she disagrees with lethal injection or the execution of prisoners. Instead, the film shows it. Whether it is through the evaporating relationship with her husband, her terse conversations with Woods, or her mute expressions, we know deep down that Bernadine is deeply disturbed by the process and sees no valid solution.
The one downside of Clemency is the relationship Bernadine has with her husband. While the relationship needs to be explored in order to fully access the impact of Bernadine’s work on her personal life, the interactions between the couple often felt rushed. It often felt like the relationship was there because it had to be and ignored opportunities to fully explore the possibilities. For example, when Bernadine comes home and finds that her husband has surprised her with an anniversary dinner, he abruptly mentions that Bernadine should think about retiring. This element could have been introduced earlier as well so that his outburst didn’t feel as random.
All in all, Clemency is an excellent portrayal of the toll executions can take on a human being. “Prison film” can often be stale and overdone but the decision to focus on the warden (and have a woman playing this role!) kept it fresh and interesting. The bleak and clinical mood that surrounds every aspect of the film was consistent, intriguing, and just depressing enough. Clemency is a hard watch, but an extremely important one as we consider the state of our current justice system.
© Dayna Hagewood (1/04/2020) FF2 Media
Featured Photo: Bernadine sitting at her desk.
Bottom Photo: Bernadine standing over a prisoner about to be executed.
Photo Credits: Clemency EPK, Courtesy of NEON
Does Clemency pass the Bechdel-Wallace test?
Yes, but barely. Bernadine speaks with a colleague about not wanting media attention at the prison after the failures of the first execution.
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