2020 has – so far – been a year for much change and unrest. Rightly so in the US (and here in the UK), with the Black Lives Matter movement gaining deserved traction and support. All lives can’t matter until black lives do.
Director Chinonye Chukwu, currently working on upcoming series Americanah (starring Lupita Nyong’o and Uzo Aduba), has brought an incredibly important, painful and prevalent topic to the big screen in Clemency, tackling the American judicial system face on.
We follow Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard), warden of a men’s prison, as she oversees the comfort and safety of inmates, and actions the eventual executions of her death row prisoners. Using alcohol as her crutch, Bernadine’s husband Jonathan (Wendell Pierce) worries about his wife, especially when she wakes screaming in the night and won’t tell him what’s troubling her.
Bernandine’s latest case, that of Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge), is what’s causing her recent upset. Woods was charged with murder and has been pleading his innocence for the last seven years, aided by lawyer Marty (Richard Schiff). When news comes through that Woods has lost his latest appeal, Bernadine must start making preparations for his execution – inviting his loved ones to say goodbye, planning his last meal. But with Woods refusing to speak to her, and Bernadine struggling with flashbacks to the prison’s last, botched execution, she’s struggling to sleep at night and concentrate during the day.
After violently hospitalising himself, Woods clings to the idea of receiving visitors, including his ex-girlfriend Evette (Danielle Brooks). But when plans fall through and the days inch by with no word from the governor on clemency, both Woods and Bernadine’s reserves of hope start to run dry.
Woodard has had a stellar career. A steady stream of film and television appearances throughout the 80s and 90s (including a part in Star Trek: First Contact), she then appeared in Desperate Housewives, True Blood, 12 Years a Slave, A Series of Unfortunate Events, Empire and Luke Cage. Now she’s holding her own as Bernadine, a woman troubled by a job she’s proud of, but which causes so much internal conflict. At night, sleeping next to her husband, she’s vulnerable without her pant-suit armour and lipstick, and relies on drink to help her find a sweet, safe spot to land after 5pm. But inside her prison, her office, she’s unbreakable…until she isn’t.
Opening on the execution of another inmate, we’re shown exactly what can go wrong when administering a lethal injection. Chukwu takes things incredibly slowly, lingering on the victim’s face, then down to the shaking hands of the medic trying to find a vein. This first 10 minutes of Clemency introduces us to what we’re in for – this is not going to be an easy story to tell, that we’re unlikely to feel ‘comfortable’ watching. And as much as you want to break your eyes away from the screen, as we watch Bernadine nod her approval to the needle entering the skin, you can’t. You want to find out what makes a person enter this profession, one that leads other people to their deaths; Chukwu tries to show us during the next 120 minutes.
Woodard is surrounded by a fantastic supporting cast, to balance out her quiet, controlled performance. Schiff, as loud, liberal Marty, is the bane of Bernadine’s career, constantly facing off against her and the decisions made by the higher-ups, decisions she then has to carry out. And Hodge as Woods – just a phenomenal performance. Refusing to speak to Bernadine, he opens up to Marty, revealing his hopes, his aspirations, his anger. A scene between Woodard and Hodge plays out as she encourages him to let her know what he’d like as his last meal (if you can ‘encourage’ anyone to share that detail), the entire time silent tears streaming down his face. The cast have tapped into some deep, raw emotions and it truly pays off.
And while it may seem that Woodard, Schiff and Hodges characters are all fighting against one another, the final few scenes show that they were really on the same side all along. Chukwu brings a side of humanity of Bernadine, that she’s not as cold as first thought, and as she walks the halls in the last minute, we cry with her.
Brilliantly paced, with a solid, brave script, Clemency is one of the best films of 2020, released at a time when its story needs to be heard, more so now than ever before.