“I am alone, and nobody can fix it.” That’s a statement Bernadette (Alfre Woodard) Williams expresses when spending time with her husband, Jonathan (Wendell Pierce). As a prison warden who administers lethal injections, she’s long ruled her work domain with an iron glove, impervious to everything and everyone. There’s no doubt that Bernadette is amazing at her job.
Yet, her delivering that statement is a self-aware cry for help that no one can honestly really help her with. The mental aspects of what she’s done have begun to bleed negatively into her life, beginning with her marriage. An upcoming execution for Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge) threatens to break Bernadette and by associative property, everyone around her.
After posting thoughts on Queen & Slim, I opined that it along with Brian Banks and Just Mercy formed an unofficial trilogy of movies rooted around injustice in some shape or form. After watching Clemency, that trilogy has become a tetralogy. All do different things around the theme (Queen & Slim a romance, Brian Banks a biography, Just Mercy a pseudo-biography interested in the machinations of the faulty legal system), but Clemency chooses to examine the psychological effects of how the inhumanity of the work portrayed can throw a mind out of equilibrium to compelling effect.
Clemency serves as the sophomore effort for the unknown Chinonye Chukwu (alaskaLand), and it’s not the type of movie that sees a director break through in full. It’s firmly one of those movies where the person behind the camera manages the game as opposed to “winning” the movie themselves. There’s power in this, though, as with certain things, less is more is better. Chukwu is extremely cognizant of the high-quality talent her feature has been gifted, opting to often fix the camera on countenances for long stretches to tell the story. A powerful opening scene is very harrowing, frightening for how simultaneously brutal and nonchalant it treats its matter at hand and it serves as the impetus for everything else seen in the runtime.
Clemency isn’t necessarily concerned with being story driven. To an extent, it ends as it begins; an implied admission from Chukwu (also serving as writer) that Bernadette is as dead as the prisoners she executes, beholden to society’s shackles on a woman who specifically is black. That subtext is hard to ignore. While it’s a little frustrating there’s no exact resolution as the film comes to a close, perhaps that’s intentional.
The acting of Woodard deserves heavy praise. She delivers her lines with steely cold resolute mixed with fear and uncertainty, her character mired in a constant flux of detachment and immersion. Yes, she deserved to be considered more for Best Actress. Not to be outdone is Hodge, as an argument could be made, he exceeds Woodard here. Possessing few speaking lines, Hodge (starring in Brian Banks months before this release) shows his ability to express feelings solely through body language, and his struggle to detach versus Bernadette’s struggle to detach is the crux of the film, both being two sides of the same coin. Other supporting work carried out by Pierce along with a pair of Richards in Schiff and Gunn are worth nothing, but this is a two-person movie.
Armed with two stellar performances from two thespians, Clemency is worth viewing for their contributions alone. The stresses and issues in the criminal justice system as currently constructed affects everyone, not just criminals and their families.
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