Clemency – Film Review

The phrase strong, black woman resonates throughout Clemency as Alfre Woodard delivers the performance of her life as a prison warden in this gripping, slow burning and meditative tale of life on death row and its impact on both sides of the prison cells. Clemency is a prison based drama centring around that legal process of clemency being granted to a prisoner as a stay in the execution process and touches upon that concept of forgiveness too. Clemency is understandably bleak but teases a glimmer of hope for the prisoners due to such process. Clemency is unyielding with the tensions existing within the prison setting, as the main location, and the film is unafraid to linger on those emotionally excruciating moments to devastating effect. Clemency is heart wrenching in its fictionalised account of death row inmates.

Despite being a fictionalised representation, Clemency does highlight the shocking fact that the majority of death row inmates are from the black communities, currently at 41.56% according to the Death Penalty Project’s statistics. Alfre Woodard as a black prison warden amongst such a high number of black inmates, despite a steely reserve to enable her to ‘do her job well’, still wishes to provide a degree of dignity for the prisoners in a seemingly impossible balancing act between the needs of the prisoners and the needs of the victim’s families. It is an unenviable task. The clinical prison setting, with its white walls and long corridors serves to highlight the institutional efficiency, personified by Woodard as Bernardine. The mere ticking of a clock, punctuates the rituals and is a haunting example of such precision. However, the well oiled execution ritual eventually shows signs of imperfection in some tear jerking scenes.

Clemency film poster
Clemency film poster

Woodard’s performance is brilliant and unparalleled in her depiction of Bernadine, whose veneer eventually begins to crack under the weight of the death row executions. Even at home, the veneer is unwavering despite the warmer colour palette and a loving husband, played by Wendell Pierce. Chinonye Chukwu’s direction is so impactful at those moments with the deliberate distance between the couple whilst at dinner representing the emotional gulf. Minimal dialogue is used but the emotional tension reverberates throughout creating even more painful moments for the audience to digest whilst watching the disintegration of a marriage. Chukwu’s direction of Woodard is extremely powerful, adding to the poignancy felt throughout Clemency.

Clemency is, astonishingly, the first time that a black female director has won the top prize at the Sundance Film Festival as Clemency quite rightly won the Grand Jury Prize in 2019. This fact alongside the high numbers of black male inmates on death row depicted within Clemency illustrate that there is still a long way to go in the fight against the injustices towards the black communities. It is therefore disheartening to witness such film being overlooked within the Oscars awards despite such a stellar performance from Woodard and Chukwu’s impressive directorial vision.

Chukwu’s direction is empathetic and subtle and therefore deliberately chooses not to subscribe to the melodramatic theatrics of other films in this genre. As such, there is no battle of wits in a court room or violent outbursts of fights amongst the inmates. Instead, there is a quiet resignation, from Woodard and others, and the internalisation of violence which seems all the more unsettling as Woodard visibly stares into the distance as an effort to maintain a modicum of dignity in the midst of trauma. The internalisation of violence manifests itself in the self-flagellation of an inmate in scenes that seemed to denote a sacrificial lamb and Christ like figure, similar to John Coffey in The Green Mile, amongst the sterile prison environment.

Chukwu provides no judgement in Clemency and trusts the cinematography and the stellar performances from Woodard, channelling the strong, black woman trope and Aldis Hodge, as the inmate Anthony, to convey the film’s emotional weight. Clemency remains an intense journey throughout and is uncompromising with no escape from the questions it raises concerning the US penal system and the need for reform.

Alfre Woodard in Clementine
Alfre Woodard in Clementine

Tracking shots, a mesmerising colour palette and long angles assist with conveying the levels of emotional stakes with such empathetic cinematography. The camera work depicts the remoteness of the prison by maintaining its distance when procedural matters occur but ramps up the emotion in other scenes by resting closely to Woodard or Hodge capturing every emotion expressed. The stillness of the camera within the life inside the prison walls amplifies the sense of dread. However, it is only outside of the prison walls that more movement of the camera is witnessed and effectively delineates the two worlds.

Some of the scenes with visitors from the outside world to see the inmates are reminiscent of If Beale Street Could Talk where all hope rests on one act to save a prisoner, which is profoundly heart breaking to watch. Chukwu works well with the cinematography to keep the audience emotionally invested in Woodard’s interactions with Hodge and the emotional toil inflicted on her stoic, strong, black woman persona, which is retained for survival in such horrific conditions within the prison. It is strangely moving to watch the ever so subtle changes as Woodard captivates the camera with her presence and illustration of this seismic shift. Woodard’s Bernardine has effectively been trapped in her own internal prison until those prison doors are flung open in heartwrenching scenes within the finale. Again, Woodard’s performance as Bernardine may be another example of that strong, black woman trope also being in need of reform as it is a damaging persona to adopt.

Colours feature heavily up until those final moments on death row which seem to stretch like eternity in anxiety inducing scenes until Clemency’s powerfully striking single-take denouement. Woodard’s emotional delivery will linger in the consciousness as a talking point for quite some time as it is such an affecting performance.

Clemency is simply a must see film and, due to its focus on the humane aspects within prison walls, will remain an important piece within the canon of death row films such as The Green Mile, 13th and Just Mercy. Chikwu had undertaken four years of research surrounding the death row procedures and injustices and hopefully Clemency, by highlighting the impact upon prison staff as well as the potentially wrongfully accused inmates and the victim’s families, will raise awareness of the barbaric nature of this continued practice and the bias towards the black communities.

Clemency deserves to have more recognition bestowed upon it for its thought provoking narrative and its highlighting of continued pressures and biases inherent within the penal system. Woodard steals the film with her seemingly understated performance epitomising that essence of the strong, black woman silently bearing the weight of the world on her shoulders. It is a very honest portrayal within the context of Clemency with such devastating effect. Clemency is certainly a film that should be screened within schools as an education tool but equally Clemency should be distributed within many platforms to provide that lesson as to the fundamental essence of humanity.

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