Alfre Woodard stars as Bernadine Williams, a warden overseeing executions in a maximum security prison in Clemency. The latest release from director Chinonye Chukwu opens with a brutally mishandled execution before spending the rest of its runtime working up to another. Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge) has spent fifteen years on death row for the killing of a police officer. While Woods’ lawyer (Richard Schiff) lobbies local government and points to new evidence exonerating his client, the execution date moves ever closer.
Chukwu spends some time with the convicted prisoner, but the bulk of Clemency is devoted to Woodward’s warden and the psychological toil of her job. That toil manifests itself in what can feel like an indie-film checklist of flashbacks, insomnia, marital struggles and late nights in dark bars with short brown drinks. The film is tastefully constructed, with classy zooms, slow dollys and a score that favours droning, ambient flourishes. There can be no doubting the worthiness of the anti-death penalty messaging, but the film could perhaps be bolder with its rage.
The opening scene of a botched execution is powerful though, while anxious scenes in which characters wait in vain for the state governor to grant clemency, are a vital reminder of the degree to which this is a political issue as much as a moral one. Ultimately, Clemency emphasises the ways in which capital punishment affects not only those sentenced, but the affliction on those required to carry out that sentence, and the broader society that condones it.
Clemency is available to stream via Bohemia Media. Select HOME as your chosen cinema to support Manchester’s local independent cinema.