Warden Bernadine Williams (an impeccable Alfre Woodward) heads a prison where they carry out the death penalty. A diligent worker who has sacrificed her life and sanity for the sake of her job, she finds herself amidst a personal crisis as deep-seated moral anxieties start to float to the surface.
Clemency opens amidst one of these executions, where things go unexpectedly awry; the medic giving the lethal injection is at first unable to locate a vein and then when he does, the stent comes out, there’s blood everywhere, the prisoner’s body starts to violently convulse. His death is torturously prolonged to the dismay of observers: his sobbing mother, local journalists and of course Bernadine and her colleagues. This witnessing of this botched killing sends her into a downward spiral of self-reflection, as the conflicting voices in her head get louder and louder.
As the next execution looms, its prospect starts to prove even more challenging. Prisoner Anthony Woods’ (Aldis Hodge) submissive and good-natured demeanour perplexes Bernadine. Coupled with the continuous noise of the protestors outside, a constant throughout the film, and the efforts of his impassioned lawyer (Richard Schiff), suggests that Woods maybe innocent, spurring further feelings of guilt to crippling effect.
A lot of what we learn about Bernadine is delicately inferred. She conveys a woman who’s spent her life in pursuit of painstaking perfection, a black woman striving to become warden in one the toughest of male-dominated environments.
The side-effects are an underlying sadness. Unable to sleep, her marriage on the rocks, the grind is sucking all the life out of her, leaving with her inability to commit to an emotionally neglected husband (Wendell Pierce).
There is a dominant sombre mood by the muted hyperrealist cinematography of Eric Branco and of course the gloomy subject matter, but most of all is the fashion in which director Chinonye Chukwu (the first black woman to win the Grand Jury prize at Sundance), draws things out in a very slow pace with minimal dialogue, letting the silences and Bernadine’s big expressive eyes to tell the story. Chukwu adds subtle stints through the aesthetics, minimal changes that signify Bernadine softening, such as her wardrobe evolving from dark coloured austere suits to looser and lighter fluid garment.
Clemency is not an easy watch, disturbing even. There is the obvious questioning of the death penalty itself but goes a step further to suggest that perhaps permanent imprisonment with the anticipation of death, is a more torturous outcome than death itself. As well as the rare psychological insight into the people that carry out these actions. Nonetheless, it’s an exceptional movie, mainly due to the brilliant and in-depth characterisation of Bernadine by Woodward. Chukwu utilises fully the thespian’s commanding presence and flawless character acting.