(director/writer: Chinonye Chukwu; cinematographer: Eric Branco; editor: Phyllis Housen; music: Kathryn Bostic; cast: Alfre Woodard (Warden Bernadine Williams), Aldis Hodge (Anthony Woods), Richard Gunn (Deputy Warden Thomas Morgan), Richard Schiff (Marty Lumetta), Wendell Pierce (Jonathan Williams), LaMonica Garrett (Major Logan Cartwright), Danielle Brooks (Evette), Noshir Dalal (Paramedic), Vernee Watson (Mrs. Collins), Michael O’Neill (Chaplain Kendricks), Dennis Haskins (Mr. Collins), Debbie Pollack (Physician), Michelle C. Bonilla (Sonia), Victor Jimenez (Alex Castillo), Alma Martinez (Ms. Jimenez), Anahi Bustillos (Lauren); Runtime: 113; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Bronwyn Cornelius, Julian Cautherley, Peter Wong, Timur Bekbosunov; Neon; 2019)
“The intelligent morality death penalty film has a brilliantly restrained performance by its star Alfre Woodard.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Filmmaker Chinonye Chukwu (“alaskaLand”), in her second featured film, becomes the first black woman to win in the best film category at Sundance. Ms. Chukwu is the founder of a filmmaking collective teaching and empowering incarcerated women, and has worked as a volunteer on a number of clemency appeal cases. She helms a measured film, appealing mostly to an audience opposed to the death penalty like its director (I’m not opposed to the death penalty but have strong reservations about it when maybe the wrong person is punished).
Clemency plays out as a moving character study of an ethical warden, and tells about how carrying out the death penalty plays a heavy emotional toll on those involved. The intelligent morality death penalty film has a brilliantly restrained performance by its star Alfre Woodard. It’s both thought provoking and entertaining, even if it’s emotionally overwrought at times and makes redundant points about the cracks in the justice system. But it takes a fair stand against capital punishment without preaching, though its arguments are far from convincing when presenting its convicted cop killer case.
Veteran stoic and dignified prison warden Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard) has been on the job for fifteen years at a maximum security prison. She’s a tough cookie working in a power position usually reserved for a man, but feels depressed after two recent executions. In total 12 inmates were executed under her watch (which has her stating emphatically “I gave these men respect all the way through.”). Bernadine is especially distraught after one lethal injection execution of a death row Hispanic (Alex Castillo), shown in the prelude, is botched and there’s a public outcry. She’s determined the next execution will be mistake free.
The gist of the film centers around the approaching execution of the laconic young African-American man, Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge), convicted of shooting a police officer during a convenience store robbery 15 years earlier. Woods has a pained expression that either expresses his innocence or his death row discomfort going through this long and agonizing process, as we’re never quite sure if he’s guilty or not. The inmate is anxiously awaiting a clemency ruling from the governor, after his appeal.
Marty Lumetta (Richard Schiff) is the defense attorney who maintains his client’s innocence due to a lack of hard evidence presented. There has been a long and strained appeals process, that has gotten under the lawyer’s skin to the point he plans to retire after this case, especially after learning his client’s appeal has been turned down. Retirement is also appealing for the prison chaplain (Michael O’Neill), also worn down by the complexities of the justice system.
The film’s most emotionally moving scene has Evette (Danielle Brooks), Woods’ high school-age girlfriend at the time of his arrest and mother of his son, visit him after not seeing him all this time after his arrest, as she finally reveals her reasons and raises for a moment his hope of reuniting before dashing them.
The scene showing the strains on the warden’s married life is alarming. Her caring hubby schoolteacher Jonathan (Wendell Pierce) believes their marriage has come completely apart because of her lack of emotional responses to him. Bernadine, married to her job, can only utter in despair to his complaints “I am alone, and nobody can fix it.” She seems closer to her deputy warden (Richard Gunn) than anyone else, as the job becomes her main reason for living.
One of the salient points made in this realistic drama is that eventually, no matter what side of the fence you are on, the justice system will wear you down. This is not a movie for the viewer who wants easy answers.
REVIEWED ON 10/26/2019 GRADE: B +