Director: Chinonye Chukwu | Script: Chinonye Chukwu | Cast: Alfre Woodard (Bernadine Williams), Richard Schiff (Marty Lumetta), Aldis Hodge (Anthony Woods), Wendell Pierce (Jonathan Williams), Danielle Brooks (Evette Wilkinson), ea | Time to play: 112 minutes | Year: 2019
Chained to a stretcher, Víctor Jiménez utters his last prayer. Bernadine Williams nods, judging the detainee’s fate. At his command, the poison seeps into his veins through a plastic tube and he takes his last breaths after a painful struggle. In the prison drama Clemency As it turns out, the prison warden, Williams, can’t wash her hands of all these crimes.
Clemency knows how to tackle a stinging issue in the American legal system with few resources: the death penalty. Despite replacing the electric chair with poison, director Chinonye Chukwu demonstrates that punishment is an inhumane act for all involved: convicts, families, lawyers and prison staff. With a largely black cast, the story twists prevailing stereotypes, and Alfre Woodard upends the prevailing expectations of black women on screen. At Sundance 2019, the film was critically acclaimed and Chukwu became the first black woman to win the US Dramatic Grand Jury Prize.
In Clemency Principal Williams has hardened with her work over the years. As a result, she remains little more than a shadow of her former self, according to her distraught husband. With strength as steel, Bernadine speaks to the family of Anthony Woods, whose death sentence is still fiercely contested on the street and in court. The viewer never sees violence towards her or towards other employees, which one is used to seeing in movies about American prisons. It’s the great Bernadine, who operates Woods’ rack.
As Bernadine’s emotional resistance slowly crumbles, the last moments of Woods’ life are discussed. He fills the remains of his life with endless waiting, which can suddenly erupt into fiery anger or endless despair. At the moment when Bernadine tells him the procedure of his death through technical disguises, he looks death in the eye without speaking. The injustice lurks behind the jargon and processes throughout the story, and emerges in the cast’s strong non-verbal performance.
The characters move through the bare and empty spaces of the prison complex that, with their oppressive silence, seem to herald the nothing to come. Impending execution hangs around him as the clock ticks off the days, hours, and minutes. Along with Woods, the viewer counts down to his last hour, which can be excruciatingly slow, or sometimes too fast. It is a tortuous process, in which a human being is turned into an animal in a mechanical slaughterhouse. Bernadine and her colleagues have no choice but to become instruments silently carrying out orders.
Is the representation of the death penalty in Clemency realistic? Probably not. High emotional tension erupts towards the end, leaving only contempt for the death penalty. In doing so, the film reflects the message of the media fanfare, unleashed in the story itself, with the hope that Woods can still be forgiven. Clemency it shows that shouting this accusation isn’t always the best course of action, but that your power can lie in silence.
Clemency can be seen in Netflix.