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The first 10 minutes of Nigerian-American director Chinonye Chukwu’s latest film, Clemency, has us witness the chilling reality of a US state execution. The victim is a Hispanic man and his death by lethal injection is protracted as the medic charged with the grim task is unable to find a vein. The distressing scene gives immediate insight into the film’s main character, Bernadine Williams, immaculately played throughout by Alfre Woodard. Williams is warden of this male prison in an unnamed US state. Her cool detachedness, that seems evident as she calmly walks the gate clanking corridors to the execution room, is confirmed as she retains that firm detachment even during the botched execution.
But after her long career in the prison industry rigidly following the rules, cracks are beginning to show. We are given glimpses to her comfortable, unostentatious home, that’s as tastefully furnished as her casually tailored clothes, where sleepless nights belie her impassive façade. Despite having a patient and loving partner in her husband, Jonathan (Wendell Pierce), this career driven, childless woman makes regular visits to her local bar. “I need a pulse, Bernadine” pleads Jonathan as he sees their marriage evaporate.
Jonathan is a teacher and one of the most moving and memorable scenes is when he is reading to his class an excerpt from Ralph Ellison’s 1950’s book Invisible Man. As he reads the extract “I am an invisible man…because people refuse to see me”, the screen moves to the face of the tacit Anthony Woods, the next inmate on death row.
Woods, played with utter believability by Aldis Hodge, learns of his mother’s death as his own is looming. In a scene following this news, he is allowed a brief time outside in another small space. The entire film is made up of mainly head and shoulder shots that capture the claustrophobia of prison and here the camera circles closely emphasising the smallness of the prisoner’s life.
The hope of this man, who may be wrongly accused of killing a police officer, lies in news he has a son and with his trusted lawyer Marty Lumetta, played with a subtle mix of resignation and hope by Richard Schiff who says, “When I win my client gets not to die.”
It is surprising to see the warden personally deliver the detailed procedure of what awaits a death row prisoner, but Clemency is the result of four years of research and interviews across the prison sector by writer and director Chinonye Chukwu. Woods’ silent tears falling on his otherwise immobile face belies his own ostensible lack of emotion as he is made to take in the cold facts relating to the last part of his life.
Chukwu puts a human face to the life and death decision makers and to a spectrum of others affected by crime with the strong message that “All people want is to be seen and to be heard.” Clemencyis a stunning and deeply affecting film thateasily stands along with Richard Brooks’ 1967 film In Cold Blood,based on Truman Capote’s book, as a powerful indictment of capital punishment.
Clemencyhad its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival on January 27, 2019 and has a release date of 17th July 2020.