By Elaine Hegwood Bowen, MSJ
There is so much goodness in the film “Clemency,” but one has to get through all the sadness and trauma to find the message in the end.
“Clemency” is a film that deals with the painful and barbaric issue of death row and centers on a Black female warden of a Texas prison named Bernadine Williams. Williams is brilliantly played by veteran actress Alfre Woodard who—by the end of the film—damn near leaves her soul on the execution table along with the second man who is executed in the film—Anthony Woods, played with such conviction and fervor by Aldis Hodge.
I was able to screen “Clemency” at the recent 55th Chicago International Film Festival. Director Chinonye Chukwu presents this film in layers: There’s a botched execution at the beginning of the film that unleashes an intensified torrent of demonstrators and advocates against this cruel and unjust form of capital punishment. There are family members and attorneys seeking mercy and “clemency” for their loved ones and clients.
There is the toll that the job has extracted on Williams through her silence, depression and alcoholism, among other things. She is literally existing in her own prison, so to speak, as she carries out her professional duties. But, oh, what a profession it is! She walks the prison hallways in a silent stupor—many times her trademark facial expressions speaking volumes. She can’t sleep most nights. She’s lost interest in intimacy with her husband, trading his comforting arms for a shot of liquor. Her demeanor, in turn, affects her husband Jonathan, played by Wendell Pierce, who is holding on to their marriage by the seat of his pants.
And finally, there’s a measure of doubt that Woods has committed the murder for which he has been found guilty.
As the film unfolds, this doubt eats at Williams as she becomes closer to Woods—whether through conversations she has with him where he actually responds or when she tries to encourage him from outside the walls of his cell. Some of this encouragement, I suppose, Williams is using in an effort to free herself from her own tormented prison as an administrator of justice.
Hodge gives a star turning performance, as he nearly loses his mind while waiting for a word about a reprieve from the governor that in the end will never come. Personal relationships are revealed to not be as strong as he had imagined, either.
“Clemency” is yet another film about capital punishment and the death penalty that was released this season. The Bryan Stevenson story and his Equal Justice Initiative was chronicled in the film “Just Mercy.” These two films shed light on an unjust so-called criminal justice system. They are both good films, and Woodard brings everything to bear in a noteworthy performance—where the ending scenes will make even the toughest person shed a tear or two.
By the way, the good that I recalled at the beginning of this review comes in the form of increased advocacy around abolishing the death penalty and an awareness within the public that there is no exact science that guarantees a respectable, flawless way to execute a person. It is, in fact, cruel and unusual punishment.
“Clemency” also stars Richard Schiff, Danielle Brooks and Vernee Watson and will be in theaters everywhere December 27.
Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J., is the Entertainment Editor for the Chicago Crusader newspaper. She is also the author of “Old School Adventures from Englewood–South Side of Chicago.” For book info, [email protected]