Woodard commands the screen with steely and hazy gazes on capital punishment in ‘Clemency’

“Clemency” – For Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge), his days in prison are lengthy and torturous.  Each drab minute feels exactly like the next, because sitting in a 10-by-10 foot cell day after day, week after week, and month after month does nothing to spur joy or optimism.

Time has become his sworn enemy, packaged as a double-edged sword, because the seemingly endless moments are also brutally finite.

Anthony is on death row, and he unenviably stands next in line.

Warden Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard) is enduring troubling days of her own.  She bears the constant burden of managing her prison, that houses over a thousand incarcerated souls, by proficiently and gracefully clamping a lid on a potentially explosive jar, one constructed of concrete and fortified with steel.  Her employees’ routines are methodical and organized, and the incarcerated residents surprisingly and amicably avoid trouble.

An odd, invisible haze of calm floats everywhere.

Calm, but no peace.

Director Chinonye Chukwu’s measured prison drama “Clemency” delivers an effective, deep character study, but she takes a fresh, uncommon approach.  Although Anthony greatly figures into the film’s narrative, this is mainly Bernadine’s journey, as Woodard steps into a thorny, introspective role and commands a standout, Oscar-worthy performance that was not quite recognized by the Academy in a crowded year for actresses.

Chukwu spoke at a New Directors/New Films event in March 2019 and discussed her focus on Bernadine.

“I thought that it would be a much more complicated, nuanced way of examining the cost of incarceration and capital punishment through one of the perpetrators of that system.  I think that it’s a perspective we haven’t seen before,” she said.

Films like “Dead Man Walking” (1995), “The Green Mile” (1999) and most recently “Just Mercy” (2020) feature convicts staring at death’s door, and complimentary characters – a nun, prison guard and lawyer, respectively – stand by their sides.   Far more than friendly faces, they are allies.  Tim Robbins’ “Dead Man Walking” might just be the most emotionally effective in portraying a relationship between ally and inmate, as Sister Helen Prejean (Susan Sarandon) helped admitted killer Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn) recapture his humanity.

Bernadine has no such luxury to not only govern the institution but also offer personal reassurances to her death row constituents.  It’s just not her place.  Stoic and regimented, she must leave her feelings at the door.  She’s also courteous and professional but does not bend the rules, and why should she?  If a white man ran the prison, compassion and empathy certainly would not be expected.  Chukwu plays against expected-type with Bernadine, as she’s a woman of color who runs a male prison, and furthermore, her husband Jonathan (Wendell Pierce) has a much more empathetic, altruistic vocation.  He teaches high school.

With such a trying profession, Chukwu and Woodard demonstrate that Bernadine needs daily releases to cope, even if she does not fully recognize the negatives.  Her marriage becomes widely exposed to collateral damage, and she also regularly indulges in an unhealthy daily practice (that will not be named in this review) that isn’t helpful to her personal life, but she needs something to offset her 9-to-5 days.

Bernadine’s days mostly remain free from drama, but with men waiting for – and fearing – an executioner pointing a judging, threatening finger in their direction, prepare for a couple explosive moments.  Otherwise, the narrative is purposely filled with quiet, long stretches, where gray, everyday conversations encircle and encapsulate the grave surroundings, along with patient camerawork that is not afraid to sit and wait with the detained characters.

Although he could be saved by a miracle, Anthony awaits his – most likely – doomed fate, and so does the audience and his lawyer (Richard Schiff), who seems eternally defeated after the government has put too many of his clients to death over the past couple decades.

Accordingly to Google, 29 states carry the death penalty, and this unnamed prison in an unnamed state does not resemble a place for hope.  “Clemency” is an anti-capital punishment movie that sets a decided bleak tone from the very beginning, and we – through pure necessity – lean on Bernadine to carry us through to the very end, even though it is obvious that she silently grapples with her chosen universe.

She just might be imprisoned as well.  If so, can she escape?

⭐⭐⭐  out of  ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Image:  NEON Studios; Trailer credits:  Movie Trailers Source


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