Alfre Woodard (Star Trek: First Contact, 12 Years A Slave, Captain America: Civil War) gives a career defining turn in Clemency, Chinonye Chukwu’s beautifully understated drama about a death row warden who begins to question her profession after witnessing a botched execution.
Inspired by the story of high profile death row inmate Troy Davis who was executed at a Us State prison in 2011, the film does a fantastic job in realistically replicating the process of state sanctioned Capital Punishment from the standpoint of the people carrying it out, and the effects this chore can have on their mental wellbeing.
Years of carrying out death row executions are starting to take a toll on prison warden Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard). Although confident that she has carried out her job to the best of her ability for years, Bernadine’s whole existence starts to unravel when a routine execution goes horribly wrong, resulting in the prisoner suffering a painful and undignified death in front of horrified witnesses and prison staff.
With her marriage to long suffering teacher Jonathan (The Wire‘s Wendell Pierce) in the midst of a “make or break” crisis, Bernadine has to face the possibility of leaving a profession she loves to get away from yet another senseless death. Things are further complicated when Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge), the next inmate on the prison’s kill list is informed by his lawyer Marty (Richard Schiff) that he has sadly exhausted all his appeals. However there’s a glimmer of hope when Anthony receives a letter from ex girlfriend Evette (Orange Is The New Black’s Danielle Brooks) informing him that she had kept the existence of their teenage son from him.
Chukwu offers a darkly complex character study which manages to advance the discourses way beyond the pointlessness of capital punishment. And by opting to focus the story on the people entrusted with conducting this barbaric task, the young writer-director is able to go further than anyone has gone before. Having spent 4 years researching her story, Chukwu was able to work closely with retired death row wardens and guards who have now joined the fight against the death penalty.
At the heart of the story there is exits a tender and fragile relationship between Woodard and Hodge’s characters which transcends all other aspects of the story. It is this relationship between prisoner and executioner which becomes more and more blurred as we get to the crux of the final moments of the story.
Clemency hits you like a sucker punch just when you’re expecting it the least. Chinonye Chukwu has given us a brave, emotionally charged and brilliantly acted drama about a subject many would shy away from broaching so volatile the discourse around it has become.
Clemency is part of the 2019 London Film Festival programme