Arts & Culture
Sundance Film Festival Winner: Clemency is available to watch now
17 July 2020
Bernadine Williams is an American prison warden who has presided over 12 executions. But, as the 13th looms, like someone in a grim superstitious parable, she finds her mind starting to bend and crack. It is as if she has been accidentally absorbing the poison of lethal injection herself, drop by insidious drop; her workplace hazard has been corruption of the soul.
Now Bernadine has become traumatised and hollowed out in her judicial kingdom of death, teetering on the verge of alcoholism, with a borderline-inappropriate relationship with her deputy, and a failing marriage. The 12th state-sanctioned killing on her watch was grotesquely botched, with the medical orderly unable to find a vein, the needle snapping off and the prisoner dying in agony. America’s criminal-justice medicide ritual is now revealed to Bernadine as cruel and unusual in the highest degree. With the 13th procedure imminent, her own ordeal has begun.
Alfre Woodard gives a stunning performance in this devastatingly powerful movie from writer-director Chinonye Chukwu. She is the woman in charge who has to be extra tough, extra competent. She has no power to commute or reverse a life sentence. This is a matter for the courts or the state governor, though she has the burdensome prerogative of making positive recommendations to the parole board. Fundamentally, Bernadine has the dirty job of seeing through the execution to the very end.
Woodard’s face is a mask of wary professionalism and a distant, queenly beauty that finally, in a laceratingly emotional sequence, seems to melt under spiritual pressure like something made of wax, her lips and eyelids fluttering with pain. She wears a series of elegant business suits to signal her modernity and expertise to both staff and media. But the movie shows how she has been ground down by the awful routine and its queasy traditions, which Chukwu reveals to be horribly unvarying.
It is Bernadine, as governor, who must signal for the curtain to be drawn back so the official observers behind glass – including relatives and victims of the prisoner – can see him strapped to the gurney getting the final dose in this theatre of cruelty. It is Bernadine who must ask the prisoner if he has any final words, and it is she who must take the microphone away from his lips when she considers he has said enough. And as a woman, it has become her unofficial duty, before any of this happens, to console and hug the prisoner’s distraught mother when it becomes grimly clear that the governor is not going to call.
Wendell Pierce is excellent as her husband, Jonathan, who begs her to retire and resume with him a normal human existence; and Aldis Hodge has a tragic dignity as the condemned prisoner, Anthony Woods, whose anguish goes on and on. He is the young man whose murder conviction has looked increasingly unsafe over the 15 years he has been on death row as more evidence has come in, but all to no avail. In one scene, Chukwu allows us to notice after half a minute that there are the tracks of dried tears on his face from some previous emotional outburst. Danielle Brooks (from TV’s Orange Is the New Black) is tremendous as Anthony’s ex-partner who reveals something heartrending in a visit. Richard Schiff is excellent as his careworn lawyer.
What the film does superbly is suggest the nauseating airless atmosphere of the prison: a smell of thwarted hope and rancid despair. All the time, there is noise from the air-con in the background, a faint rushing, groaning like a faulty life-support system whose function now is to suck all the oxygen away, and this pulses and throbs alongside Kathryn Bostic’s compelling musical score.
We also see how the death penalty creates a bizarre quasi-saintly heroism around any condemned man – a status he neither wants nor needs. Hodge is quietly magnificent as he dramatises his unsought parodic-Christlike passivity as Anthony waits for death, surrounded by all the anti-disciples and non-centurions and faux Pontius Pilates of the prison’s secular world. His pain has been seeping into Bernadine’s heart. It’s a towering performance from Woodard, her career masterpiece, and she is first among equals in an outstanding cast.
Clemency is available to watch here and in cinemas.
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