Dir: Chinonye Chukwu. Starring: Alfre Woodard, Aldis Hodge, Richard Schiff, Danielle Brooks, Michael O’Neill, Richard Gunn, Wendell Pierce. 113 mins.
On Tuesday, America saw its first federal execution in 17 years. In the dead of night, deep within the maze on an Indiana prison, convicted murderer Daniel Lewis Lee was taken from his cell and strapped to a metal gurney. He stayed there for the next four hours, his lawyers claim, as the last obstacles to his death were toppled by the courts. Behind closed doors, in places both silent and sterile, inhumanity thrives.
Chinonye Chukwu’s prison drama Clemency captures this strange quiet that occurs right before death strikes. It opens with its hardest-hitting scene. Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard), the warden, is overseeing the execution of Victor Jimenez (Alex Castillo) by lethal injection. The medical technician struggles to find a vein – he tries both arms first, then the foot, and finally the hip. Victor sinks from petrified silence into guttural sobs, like those of wounded prey. As the chemicals start to pour into his body, he starts to convulse. A pool of blood appears. Behind a window, his mother starts to scream, as the curtain is quickly pulled on her and the small assembly of journalists in the witness room. Victor bleeds out before anything can be done.
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The camera shifts from Victor to Bernadine. She stands, general-like, at the head of the operating table. Her words are coated in icy professionalism. But Woodard’s Bambi-wide eyes betray a different truth – we’re watching as her soul is slowly leeched from her body. Soon, there will be nothing left. This was her 12th execution. The next will be Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge), convicted of killing a police officer, despite mounting evidence to the contrary. He holds on to the hope the governor will grant him last-minute clemency.
Chukwu spent four years interviewing guards and wardens in Ohio, where the death penalty is still legal. She carefully documented the moral toll exacted on these workers. In her film, guilt spreads out like ripples. The deputy warden (Richard Gunn) wants a job at a prison without a death row. Woods’s defence lawyer (Richard Schiff) and the ward’s chaplain (Michael O’Neill) both talk of retirement. A guard (LaMonica Garrett) who witnessed Jimenez’s execution is haunted by visions. “I couldn’t stop seeing him,” he shakily confesses.
Even Bernadine’s husband (Wendell Pierce) has started to break away. He can’t bear to live with this “empty shell of a wife”, in a home that cinematographer Eric Branco makes as dark and oppressive as inside the prison walls. Bernadine persists. “I give these men respect, all the way through,” she tells him. She thinks that good can exist within something inherently corrupt – Chukwu underlines her message by following a black woman at the very centre of this racist, patriarchal system. But it’s a belief she can only find these days at the bottom of a whisky glass.
Woodard deserves to be a far bigger star than she already is. When she’s appeared in supporting roles, in films such as 12 Years a Slave or 2019’s The Lion King, she’s still made her mark – Clemency is proof of just how effortlessly she can lead a film. Bernadine’s stiff, tailored suits, in shades of black and navy blue, threaten to swallow her up. But the pools of regret that build up behind her eyes, or the soft quiver of her lip, reveals to us the woman trapped inside, desperate to be free of her burden. In 2019, Chukwu became the first black woman to win the Sundance Film Festival’s Grand Jury Prize. It’s long overdue, but well-deserved – her work is a deeply moving piece of social art.