Clemency review: Alfre Woodard is heartbreaking in this powerful drama
Ivan Radford | On 17, Jul 2020
Director: Chinonye Chukwu
Cast: Alfre Woodard, Michael O’Neill, Wendell Pierce, Aldis Hodge
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“I do my job,” says Bernadine Williams matter-of-factly midway through Clemency, the gut-wrenching drama from Chinonye Chukwu. That understated, restrained tone gives the film a quiet potency that lingers after the credits have rolled.
Bernadine has been a warden on death row for decades of her life, overseeing people being sent to a grave by purportedly humane methods. But that profession has taken its toll on her, and the film delves into the psychological trauma of her employment, and how it’s impossible for her to extricate herself from it. Her husband, Jonathan (the always-excellent Wendell Pierce), wants her to retire and is concerned for her, but as she tells him during one of their increasingly frequent arguments, he can’t possibly understand what she’s going through, simply because he’s never done what she does every day.
Too often, people are reduced to their job. And yet, on some level, we are unavoidably what we do, whether that’s the impact it has on how others perceive us or the impact it has upon our own well-being. It’s rare, though, for a film to focus on someone doing their job in such depth and with such human understanding.
It’s not a gentle watch, however, and that becomes clear from the opening scene, which sees an execution go disturbingly wrong. It’s not for the faint-hearted, and that’s particularly true for one of the guards in the room (LaMonica Garrett), who struggles with continuing to work after the harrowing incident. Bernadine relieves him, but continues to do her job; there’s a determination there, as well as a moral duty to ensure things proceed smoothly, but there’s also a routine that drives her on, despite the immoral nature of her work. There’s an unstoppable rhythm to the cycle of inmates, to the way the steady drumbeat wears her down.
All of those pressures combine as another inmate, Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge), loses his final appeal. Nonetheless, his lawyer, Marty, continues to fight to free him. As Anthony hopes for a last-minute pardon, we find out more about his personal life, but where another film might put the two together as antagonistic forces, Chukwu keeps them largely apart, exploring their two lives in parallel strands, even though they’re inevitably, existentially connected.
Hodge is fantastic as Anthony, a man who spends a large part of his screentime not speaking but slowly losing that composed exterior, moving between hopeful optimism and tearful anguish. That same stillness is in Alfre Woodard’s powerful performance, which captures the heartbreaking consequences of detaching oneself from human connection for such a long, relentless time. Woodard is flawless in an award-worthy leading role; she is magnetic to watch as she inhabits Bernadine’s authoritative presence, her soulful torment, her gradual breaking point.
There’s no question that the death sentence is a barbaric concept, but Clemency explores the two-sided costs of an institution that has systemically taken the lives of people of colour to a disproportionate degree. The lives lost and the broken families caused also extend to the people employed by the system – even the chaplain (Michael O’Neill) is planning to retire soon. At the heart of it all, Alfre Woodard is agonising to watch as an anonymous cog consumed by the machine, for whom clemency is also not a possibility.
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