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Amid the many oversights of January’s Oscar nominations, Alfre Woodard’s absence from the best actress shortlist was particularly telling. Having earned a supporting actress nomination for Cross Creek in the 80s, Woodard hit a career high in this deceptively low-key death row drama from writer-director Chinonye Chukwu, who last year became the first black woman to win the US dramatic grand jury prize at Sundance. As the warden in a maximum security prison facing a crisis of faith in her work and her life, Woodard is brilliantly measured and understated, a quality that (as Michael B Jordan’s similarly snubbed performance in Just Mercy proved) rarely attracts Oscar attention.
Woodard plays Bernadine Williams, who prides herself on treating her inmates with dignity as they move through incarceration to whatever awaits – whether that be freedom or death. From the prison gates, the chants of protesters provide a constant background noise, which she zones out even as it seeps into her office. Yet Bernadine is having doubts about the death penalty – doubts that turn into cold-sweat fears when a botched procedure reveals the true horror of execution.
With her marriage to Jonathan (Wendell Pierce) cracking under the strain of work (“Mine is not a job, it’s a profession,” she tells him), Bernadine faces another traumatic event – the increasingly hopeless fate of Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge), who has spent 15 years on death row. Anthony’s lawyer, Marty (Richard Schiff), has uncovered plentiful evidence calling into question his client’s conviction. But with appeals exhausted, both Bernadine and Anthony are left watching the clock as the days, hours and minutes tick away. “When I win, my client gets to not die,” Marty tells Bernadine, before asking pointedly “How do you keep doing it?” “I give these men respect,” she replies. “You can’t save the world…”
According to Woodard, inspiration for Clemency came in part from the pleas made by death row staff and wardens in the case of Troy Davis, executed in Georgia in 2011. As Woodard has said, their message was: “Not only do you need to spare this person’s life, you need to spare our lives, because this is what it does to us to take life.” That sense of the death penalty’s toll on all those it touches runs throughout Chukwu’s intelligent drama, in which everyone – prisoners, wardens, lawyers, chaplains – seem to be experiencing some form of collective PTSD.
The genius of Woodard’s performance is the extent to which her demeanour – her stance, her stoicism, the modulation of her voice, even the rhythm of her breathing – tells us more about her character’s journey than verbal exposition ever could. The fact that Clemency approaches the subject of state execution from the perspective of a black female death-row warden is remarkable enough, flying in the face of several movie stereotypes, adding another layer of complexity to Bernadine’s struggles, both personal and political. But it takes an actor of Woodard’s calibre to show us how Bernadine arrived at this point, and why she finds herself so conflicted.
Plaudits to Hodge, who mesmerises as the inmate facing death even as new life presents itself – albeit at a distance. A powerful scene in which Bernadine explains the execution procedure to Anthony plays out largely on Hodge’s face. As she speaks, he sits in silence, rhythmically shifting, absorbing the information; a symphony of shock, anger, and fear playing across his features, broken only by the tracks of his tears, and the sound of a single exhalation.
While cinematographer Eric Branco discreetly cranks up the increasing sense of confinement (these walls are closing in), composer Kathryn Bostic’s score mingles with the electronic hum of prison doors; ethereal voices and eerily reversed screeches heard as if through glass, like a distant scream scratching at the edges of a nightmare.
• Clemency is available on Curzon Home Cinema and bohemiamedia.co.uk/Clemency
Source: The Guardian
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