Time and time again a new film or television series is released honing in on the American Judicial System, where an individual pleads their case to a judge and jury, with several subplots based around the people affected by the trial. The new film Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile is based on serial killer Ted Bundy is a perfect example of this. But what if a film were to bypass the trial and focus instead on narrating the last days of a death row inmate and the people who carry out the execution?
In comes Clemency, the Sundance 2019 U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury Prize winner, directed and written by Chinonye Chukwu, starring the phenomenal Alfre Woodard. The film is fearless in addressing the issues surrounding the imperfect American Judicial System.
Throughout the course of several years, prison warden Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard) has mastered the art of executing death row inmates. Williams does not permit the family of inmates, outside protesters, nor the media to stand in her way of delivering what she believes to be justice. With grace and perfection, Williams carries out each execution without waver, that is until one particular execution does not proceed as planned. With her equilibrium in disarray, Williams must come to terms with the morality of her profession and the impact it has on her marriage with her husband Jonathan Williams (Wendell Pierce).
There is no one better suited to test Williams’ weakened psyche than Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge), a death row inmate who may not be guilty of the crime he is accused of. Woods, with the help of his veteran lawyer Marty Lumetta (Richard Schiff), are appealing for clemency, and the one person who may be able to help them free Woods is ironically his very own executioner, Williams. With time running out, the audience explores the Woods’ final days and the effect it has on Williams.
Woodard is one of the best living actresses in Hollywood, but Clemency will likely be the film to propel her towards receiving “Best Actress” nominations. Woodard carries a scene with her facial expressions alone, making you sense a feeling of admiration and pity for her character as she faces trying decisions. Hodge, known for his role in Underground, delivers by far one of his best performances to date, with enough nuance to bring you to tears as you sympathize with his character.
As a black woman, Chukwu handles the subject matter of Clemency with care and is sure to demonstrate how the American Judicial System has treated young black men throughout the decades, and how there are people still fighting for them when even their loved ones have left their sides. Clemency is a much-needed story that demonstrates the psychological effects of executing a person can have, and what procedures are in place to help them deal with the ordeal.
Clemency forces you to reevaluate where you stand on the American Judicial System and Capital Punishment without preaching a moral message or condemning a certain group of people, and although the film is not based on real people, as long as the death penalty exists there will always be a story like Williams’ and a Woods’.