Review: Alfre Woodard Gives Performance Of Her Career In Clemency

Review: Clemency
Starring Alfre Woodard
Director, screenplay Chinonye Chukwu

Cast: Alfre Woodard, Richard Schiff, Aldis Hodge, Wendell Pierce, Richard Gunn, Danielle Brook
Opens December 27, 2019

Alfre Woodard gives the performance of her career in Clemency, a film that unflinchingly portrays the human misery at the heart of the prison system, and particularly, of death row. She is entirely convincing as the prison matron whose uber efficient professional exterior hides growing fissures in her emotional life. The film won a Grand Jury Prize at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, and it's easy to see why.
Alfre Woodard in Clemency
We meet Warden Bernadine Williams as she prepares to preside over an execution. She is deftly professional with family members, even as the chants of protesters swell outside her window. We see the gross spectacle of executions, the horror that goes on behind closed doors.

Director Chinonye Chukwu rightly focuses a lot of camera time on Alfre and her face - the mask of professionalism, where only the movement of an eye, or twitch at the corner of her mouth betrays the roiling emotions she stamps down. Bernadine survives by a severe kind of reliance on the rules, offering no clemency of her own when asked to bend them to allow visitors in to see the condemned prisoner.

She's a professional in the midst of human misery, and sticking to the rules is her way of wading through all that. It's what she justifies as respect - she has respect for the men under her purview, no matter what else happens, and that's what she clings to, but is it enough?

Beatrice tells her husband she's fine even as she spends another sleepless night on the couch, and her flawless professional exterior begins to crack. Beatrice is multi-layered and nuanced, and offers audiences no easy answers. The camera work emphasizes the realities it depicts. Tight shots and darker lighting emphasize the claustrophobia of prison.

The rest of the cast is solid, including Richard Schiff as the battle-weary leftie lawyer, Aldis Hodge as a death row convict, Wendell Pierce as Beatrice's long suffering husband, and Michael O'Neill as grizzled old Chaplain Kennedy, Beatrice's death row comrade in arms.

An interview with the cast:

The film got its International Premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2019, and Alfre Woodard and Chinonye Chukwu were on hand to participate in a Q&A after the screening. Chukwu revealed that the story was inspired by the execution of Troy Davis in 2011. She thought about the idea for some time before she made the decision to go forward. Research began in 2013.

Woodard and Chukwu went to several prisons, talking to wardens and prisoners, to get a feel for how the story should be told. Alfre Woodard also one of four executive producers of the film.
Clemency talk-back with director Chinonye Chukwu and star Alfre Woodard

"We never talk about the people who carry out these executions," Chukwu said.

According to her research, Chukwu said those prison employees suffer PTSD at rates higher than the military. The depth of their research can be felt in the portrayal of both the surreal details of execution by lethal injection, and in the emotions of the characters.There's a lot to take in from this movie.

There's a good reason why the distributors of Clemency chose to skip a Christmas opening, and opt for the 27th instead. This is no feel good holiday family story. We see the stark realities of what happens when human misery is institutionalized. The film raises the veil to expose the real truth about the death penalty and the toll it takes on seemingly everyone who is connected with it.