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Sundance 2019 Review: ‘Clemency’

Sundance 2019 Review: ‘Clemency’


Clemency digs deep inside your heart and forces you to witness one of the most difficult moments a warden has to endure, authorizing the execution of a prisoner.

Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard)  is a hardworking determined and willful prison warden that is extremely dedicated to her career. She’s so dedicated to her work in fact, that when her husband Jonathan (Wendell Pierce) proposes the idea of early retirement she’s offended that she has to choose between her career and her marriage.

However, Bernadine is about to face the most complicated task of her life, prepping the execution of inmate Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge). Woods, who was accused of killing a police officer 15 years ago, has held onto his innocence ever since that fateful night. Suspicions build as the witnesses began to recant their stories over the years and crowds slowly begin to rally in favor of Woods’ innocence.

What writer/director Chinonye Chukwu does in this narrative that is unique to most dramatic depictions of innocent prisoners stories, is that she writes the story from the perspective of the warden. Woodard gives us a stoic delivery of a woman who is conflicted about Woods’ innocence, and yet staying loyal and professional in her duty as a warden to carry out justice.

In her duty as a prison warden, she’s forced to be emotionally detached from the circumstances regarding the Woods’ case.  

After a botched execution of an inmate, there is a shift in Bernadine, that pushes to the surface some psychological demons she’s been carrying. Her husband knows that her job is taking its toll and tries to be as supportive as he can on the Woods matter, but an increasing crescendo of worry, doubt, and fear builds up in both of them as it gets closer the execution date.

In one of the most brilliant and groundbreaking performances of his career, Aldis Hodge plays a man who hangs on to the last thread of hope left days before his execution. He’s diligent and determined and confides in his attorney Marty Lumetta (Richard Schiff), a man who he believes is the only one he can count on, to give him the benefit of the doubt. Ultimately, it’s not his attorney’s decision that will release Woods, but the governor who can grant clemency seconds before the execution that could save his life.

There are scenes with Hodge when he doesn’t speak at all, and his tears and facial expressions tell us everything about Anthony Woods and the years of turmoil he has endured. Woods discovers during his imprisonment that he has a child and his estranged girlfriend, Evette (Danielle Brooks) delivers some heartbreaking news about Woods that reveals some additional subtext to his past, and how emotionally distraught this man must be — fighting the demons of his past and having to face an inevitable baleful future.

What Chinonye Chukwu does with Alfre Woodard in this movie, is give the actress the opportunity to silently connect with the audience.  In this beautifully reticent and restrained delivery of her performance, Woodard presents us one of the most powerful scenes in the movie. It is a static shot of Bernadette filled with anguish and despair, as tears form and slowly roll down her cheeks. The shot stays on Alfre Woodard for several minutes, and its as if the director wants us to feel that same pain and experience exactly what Bernadine is going through at that moment.  It’s a scene that sticks with you and provokes an awareness imbued with compassion for the warden, who seemingly is someone we do not want to root for.

We want mercy for Anthony Woods who stands by his innocence and root for justice to find its way into his story, and meanwhile, we have some contempt for this prison warden who has a job to do, even if it is morally questionable.

The film also has a hauntingly beautiful score composed by Kathryn Bostic, who also is an executive producer on the film.

Clemency examines with integrity and truth — the emotional weight of a prison warden’s duty of carrying out executions through this impactful story filled with groundbreaking performances.

Clemency premiered Sunday, January 27th at the Sundance Film Festival.

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