As she prepares to execute another inmate, Bernadine must confront the psychological and emotional demons her job creates, ultimately connecting her to the man she is sanctioned to kill.
Alfre Woodard is an actress who instantly improves anything that she appears in, and as prison warden Bernadine Williams in ‘Clemency’, she has a leading role worthy of her talents. ‘Clemency’ is a character study of Bernadine, a dedicated professional who cares about her job and becomes emotionally invested in the fates of the prisoners on death row under her command. This emotional investment creates problems for Bernadine in her personal life where she appears distant from her husband (a well cast Wendell Pierce) and her dedication starts to consumer her professionally as well with her latest inmate, a man who continues to maintain his innocence (Aldis Hodge).
Death Row dramas generally focus on the inmates and often on attempts to avoid the execution and whilst ‘Clemency’ does touch on this, it’s more focused on Bernadine and the emotional toll working in this environment can take on someone. The film begins with a botched execution that really affects Bernadine and it leads her to take a keener interest in the next man due for execution, regularly discussing his case with his lawyer (Richard Schiff) and forgoing the distance required to carry out her duties with minimal psychological impact. Her dedication to her routine helps to mask the anguish at the consequences of her work and it’s a circle that Bernadine is never quite able to square. The screenplay is well written from writer-director Chinonye Chukwu and the film wisely steers clear of becoming overly political or dramatic, trusting in the strength of the material to make this story engrossing without the need for any cinematic quirks. Alongside Woodard the film has a stellar supporting cast, from the aforementioned Hodge, Schiff and Pierce, to Danielle Brooks as a character who appears late in the day and provides the ultimate gut punch.
‘Clemency’ is an excellent film that explores serious social issues with nuance and care through Woodard’s sublime performance and I highly recommend it.
Directed By: Chinonye Chukwu
Starring: Alfre Woodard, Aldis Hodge, Richard Schiff, Danielle Brooks, Wendell Pierce, Michael O’Neill and Richard Gunn