In Chinonye Chukwu's Clemency, Alfre Woodard stars as Bernadine Williams, the warden of a death row prison. Her job is one of almost unimaginable difficulty, particularly because she has a strong conscience and is clearly being eaten alive by the requirements of her profession. She manages her own distress by hiding it behind a seemingly unflappable air of resolve and professionalism, which requires that she see herself as being just outside her role in overseeing the imprisonment, and in some cases execution, of the men under her watch. Everything is to be done right, by the book, with as much care and empathy as possible; but, in the end, she cannot escape from the fact that her job is to manage the state-sponsored ending of human lives.
Many a Hollywood movie has depicted prison wardens as stereotyped villains-so much so that AMC's The Movie List once put together a "Top Ten Evil Prison Wardens" List. This list ranges widely, from Strother Martin's sadistic, drawling Captain in Cool Hand Luke (1967), to Bob Gunton's money-laundering religious hypocrite in The Shawshank Redemption (1994); but, what they all have in common is a fundamental nastiness that defines the scope and depth of power they wield over the men they imprison. Prison movies have often functioned as allegories for the inequities of power and the failings of social structures to protect human dignity, which is why wardens are so often propped up as symbols of corruption and cruelty-men (and they're almost always men) who get off on the life-and-death control they exert over prisoners, who they see as subhuman.
Bernadine is the opposite of all of that, and her efforts to do the right things as best she can lies at the heart of Clemency's conflicted drama. The film opens with a particularly intense and distressing sequence in which she is overseeing an execution. Despite her methodical commitment to procedure, it goes terribly wrong, first because the medical technician has difficulty finding a sufficient vein for the lethal injection and must continually poke the man, causing him great agony, and then the needle comes loose during the execution, which turns it into a ghastly event that feels, in every way, cruel and unusual. The botched execution shakes Bernadine to her core, mostly because it undercuts her goal of maintaining the prisoner's dignity right up until the end of his life. Even though she is not directly responsible (the problems are blamed on the prisoner not being better hydrated), she still knows that she has failed.
Most of the film centers around Bernadine's resolve to not let the same thing happen again with the case of Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge), a convicted murderer who has continually professed his innocence, but has nonetheless exhausted all of his appeals and, short of received a stay from the governor, is scheduled to be executed. Bernadine finds herself at odds with Marty Lumetta (Richard Schiff), a soon-to-retire civil rights attorney who has been trying to get Woods released (Chukwu drew inspiration from the real-life case of Troy Davis, who spent 20 years on death row and was executed in 2011 despite there being serious doubts about his conviction). At heart, Bernadine agrees with Marty's plight in trying to save Woods, but she is also beholden to her job and the requirement that she abide by the prison's rules and procedures. Her job is to maintain order, and she is determined to do so.
At home, Bernadine is struggling with her marriage. Her husband, a schoolteacher named Jonathan (Wendell Pierce), is long-suffering and well-meaning, and he can sense the toll that Bernadine's job is taking on her-the sleepless nights, the stressed-out days, the reliance on alcohol, the lack of connection she feels to anyone, including him. This marital subplot in some sense feels necessary because it grounds Bernadine in a life outside the prison and shows how she cannot leave her job behind its walls; but, at the same time, it is the weakest aspect of the film, as the interpersonal strife and accompanying arguments, misunderstandings, frustrations, and possibilities for reconciliation feel overly familiar and programmed. But, even with that relative weakness, Clemency still packs a powerful punch, dramatizing in a uniquely compelling way the realities of our system of incarceration and punishment that moves beyond broad arguments for and against the death penalty by showing us the price paid by all those who must work within such a system.
Copyright © 2020 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © Neon Films
Overall Rating: (3)
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