There’s a scene deep into writer-director Chinonye Chukwu’s second feature Clemency which encapsulates the powerful symmetry of filmmaking, performance and narrative that underpin this remarkable film. The camera stays tightly focused on the tortured face of seasoned prison warden Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard), refusing to look away as she loses herself to silent tears while overseeing the execution of one of her inmates; something that, until now, has been an entirely routine part of her job. Uncomfortable, emotional and resolutely unflinching in its gaze, this extended sequence is indicative of Chukwu’s clear-eyed exploration of the issue at the centre of her film: the contentious debate surrounding America’s death penalty and, particularly, the way in which death row disproportionately targets African-American men.

`It’s an incendiary subject that’s been covered in various ways, both fact and fiction, by filmmakers from Frank Darabont (The Green Mile, 1999) to Ava DuVernay (in the 2016 documentary 13th). Chukwu’s approach is, like her unforgettable protagonist, measured and steady, allowing the abject cruelty of this penal environment – in which non-white inmates are clearly considered guilty until proven innocent – to speak for itself. Indeed, awful truths about injustice and prejudice are present in every scene, until even Bernadine is left with no choice but to confront the horrific reality of her situation.

That’s not to say that Chukwu, the director of alaskaLand (2012), presents Clemency as a traditional journey of heroic self-discovery. The poignant core of this story is that Bernadine, as a Black woman operating in a man’s world, could be seen as a wilfully complicit cog in this terrible machine because she has allowed her professional ambition to cloud her compassion. When we meet her, she is no wide-eyed newcomer but an experienced, respected woman who has carved out a successful career not with idealism, but with dogged realism.

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Clemency (2019)

She approaches her work with a sense of duty and abject by-the-bookism, whether managing the care of the inmates under her control, ensuring executions are carried out with military precision or attempting to comfort the families of the recently deceased. This is simply a job that must be done to the best of her ability. A gut-wrenching sequence in which she explains the execution process in cold clinical detail while prisoner Anthony Wood (a nuanced and deeply moving performance by Aldis Hodge) weeps in the corner of his cell highlights how deep she has buried her empathy.

Yet, despite her meticulous, businesslike manner, it’s immediately clear that Bernadine is a woman under duress, edges sharpened by years spent ushering men to their deaths. Away from the prison walls she is closed off and isolated, unable to let her devoted but increasingly impatient husband Jonathan (a warm turn from Wendell Pierce) get close to her. She drinks too much. She can’t sleep, spending nights staring into the television. Yet she keeps those demons under tight wraps. A proud woman, hers is a psychological battle she is determined to wage in private.

Working from Chukwu’s sensitive, authentic screenplay – which eschews any melodrama or mawkishness in favour of a gritty, unrelenting realism and treats every character with humanity and respect – Woodard puts in a phenomenal performance which should have attracted Academy attention. She expresses Bernadine’s churning inner turmoil not through high drama or soapboxing, but through her resigned expression, downcast eyes and hunched shoulders. A demeanour set firm against dark thoughts of pity or pain is, it becomes clear, a twisted survival mechanism.

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Clemency (2019)

It’s a pretence she cannot keep up, however. Bernadine’s carefully controlled exterior begins to crack under the pressure when a botched, bloody execution draws media attention and summons the first feelings of guilt to the fore. Shortly afterwards, she finds herself drawn into the case of mild-mannered prisoner Wood, who maintains that he did not commit the murder for which he has been sentenced to death.

Lawyer Marty (a passionate Richard Schiff) is determined to fight for Anthony until the end – even if he himself is disillusioned and exhausted by a system that has always been stacked against his clients. Bernadine and Marty have butted heads many times before, but there’s something about Anthony that gets under Bernadine’s skin. Her growing belief that he is innocent is the splinter that finally splits her open, bringing all of her demons bursting to the surface, impossible to ignore.

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Aldis Hodge as Anthony Wood

Bernadine’s feelings of claustrophobia, turmoil and entrapment ripple out across the entire film. Most of the scenes take place within the desperate confines of the prison, and cinematographer Eric Brano prowls its dark corridors, crouches in its tiny cells and lingers on the anonymous conformity of Bernadine’s office. The bar she frequents to drown her sorrows is similarly dingy and faceless. Brief moments in which she is at home offer warmer surroundings, but are shot at a slight remove; a distant gaze on a happiness that remains out of reach. For Bernadine, as for the prisoners in her charge, there’s no sense of belonging, of peace, anywhere in this world.

This sense of lives adrift, of fates that hang precariously in the balance, is augmented by an evocative, melancholic score by Kathryn Bostic which combines with immersive sound design that emphasises the sharp noises of the prison; the screaming of anguished inmates, the chilling finality of a door slam, the mournful metronome of heartbeat monitors that bear witness to a condemned man’s final moments. These grow in volume and intensity as the film progresses, overwhelming aural markers in this visceral study of a woman trapped in a system which has no time for individual lives on either side of the bars. As the clock runs down on Anthony’s life, his mortality resting in the hands of decision-makers we never see, the horror of the situation reaches fever pitch. When Bernadine’s tears finally come, it’s a moment not just of catharsis but of damning realisation that while she too may be something of a prisoner, she must also bear some of the blame.

Originally published: 17 July 2020