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Clemency Grapples With the Banal Evil of the Death Penalty

Alfre Woodard's astonishing performance is one of many surprises in director Chinonye Chukwu's second film.

Courtesy of the Sundance Institute

In a recent documentary, a member of the Border Patrol Union of El Paso, Texas, described separating the children of migrants from their families as “the most horrible thing I have ever done.” It was, though, all in a day’s work. We’ve long understood the utterly banal machinations of bureaucratized human cruelty. Just following orders is just boring enough that art struggles to reckon with it. Audiences want cowboys in black or white hats: the passionate, not the dutiful. 

Clemency, the second feature by director Chinonye Chukwu, aims to dramatize the inherently undramatic: the moral culpability of one of the state’s anonymous functionaries. Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard) is a prison warden charged with, among other things, sending fellow humans off to their death. That this is ethically indefensible is not really in question, and I do not need and indeed could barely stomach a film that aimed only to communicate this message. The promise of the title also made me skeptical; the American predisposition to cinematic optimism had me on my guard. But Chukwu’s film is assured, distinctly understated, and utterly damning—not at all what I expected.

The movie opens with the warden overseeing an execution. If we pretend to ourselves that death by lethal injection is a humane medical procedure, the film will not indulge us this fantasy. Shackled like an untrustworthy animal, attended by a phalanx of uniformed guards, the condemned (Alex Castillo) is strapped to a gurney that recalls the cross at Golgotha. Unable to locate a vein, the medical technician tries to plumb the man’s foot. I don’t know if the camera shows us the moment; I hid behind my notebook, my body recoiling as the actor screamed. 

Bernadine, the only woman in the room, is dwarfed by her colleagues (the internet alleges that Woodard is 5-foot-3), but the actor radiates that indefinable quality we term “presence.” The warden is neither soft-spoken nor barking, she simply possesses the space, and the screen, and every scene. She is coiffed, dressed in tasteful solids (often dark, in contrast to the white-clad inmates; maybe this is a cowboy film after all), and collected.

But her cool wavers. She’s seen something no human should, and a dozen times over. She’s susceptible to the occasional reverie at work, her attention wandering where we can only guess. Beset by nightmares, Bernadine sneaks away from the marital bed and her doting husband (Wendell Pierce) to doze fitfully on the sofa. What remains, though, is her resolve. When the do-gooders representing another death-row inmate, Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge), seek her intercession, she dismisses their desire to frame the situation as a moral impasse, a game of good guys and bad. “I do my job,” she says.

The film charts the run-up to Woods’s execution, putting Bernadine between his attorney, Marty (Richard Schiff), and the family of the cop Woods has been convicted of killing (Dennis Haskins—yes, Mr. Belding of Saved by the Bell fame—and Vernee Watson-Johnson). The warden’s words ring true: What we’re watching is not an adversarial courtroom-style drama, simply the depressing march toward the inexorable end. Bernadine wields a clipboard, not a gun; she’s not an executioner, just a cog in a horrible machine. 

Many of the story’s particulars feel familiar. Bernadine drinks too much; she and her husband bicker in the way couples only ever do on screen. Woods attempts suicide; we learn he might have been wrongfully convicted; he’s given an improbable opportunity for grace that I won’t spoil. Does it grate that stories about the injustice of the system tend to follow convention, or does it make its own terrible sense? 

The film’s aesthetic strategy, however, feels uniquely its own. The prison has the uncanny look of Thomas Demand’s photographs of fake rooms and places. We’re told it holds a thousand men, but we see very few people, maybe just a happy consequence of a lean production budget. The movie doesn’t posit the warden and prisoner as foes, really; rather than pas de deux, Clemency is like two extended solos: Bernadine stalking its halls, Woods stewing in its cells. 

The film is quiet, in a literal sense—a subtle score, a decorous conversational register. The couple of times the actors’ voices grow more impassioned, it feels like a violation. There’s a beautiful sequence in which Woods plays basketball alone in an open-air enclosure, camera whirling around him; another in which Bernadine sits silently waiting for a visitor who doesn’t turn up, a column nearly obscuring her. These commonplace moments feel remarkable.

I misunderstood the title. Clemency might spare one of the condemned but will forever elude Bernadine. She is maddening, both complicated and complicit. Her womanhood and blackness are inextricable from this complexity, but she cannot be reduced to either. The chaplain (Michael O’Neill) who attends every execution intends to retire; Bernadine’s husband, a high school teacher, does as well. One of the guards (LaMonica Garrett) who witnesses the film’s first execution finds he is unable to serve at Woods’s. The warden relieves him of his duty. She means to continue with her job. She is good at it.

So is Woodard. I hate the amateur quarterbacking I’m about to engage in, but that this performance did not merit an Academy Award nomination is damning. I find it telling that Cynthia Erivo, playing Harriet Tubman in Kasi Lemmon’s serviceable but ultimately insubstantial biopic Harriet, was the only actress of color to receive that particular honor. Tubman was a hero, of course, but it’s hard to shake the sense that the Academy is rewarding Erivo for portraying an enslaved person—depicting blackness as the system is used to imagining it.    

I don’t want to talk about the specifics of how the film concludes, not for risk of spoiling the story but of coloring the audience’s experience of it. Suffice it to say that Bernadine is not a monster, nor is she granted the deliverance of repenting the most horrible thing I’ve ever done. Life is more complicated than that. Anyway, when it comes to the death penalty—or the unjust conviction of the poor or black, or, come to think of it, the separation of migrants from their children—aren’t we all cogs in a horrible machine?