“May God have mercy on your souls,” someone says in Clemency as Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard) stands in silent horror. However, for a critic revisiting Clemency on the same day that the Academy robbed Alfre Woodard of a nomination she emphatically deserved, one can’t help but read the poor man’s omen as a barb at everyone who didn’t get behind this film. It’s an extraordinary performance in a hidden gem of a film.
Clemency is a master class in acting for Alfre Woodard. She is exceptionally good playing warden Bernadine Williams. The film confronts the full weight of what it means to participate in a system that claims the lives of fellow humans. Woodard carries every ounce of this psychological burden on her face. The result is remarkably devastating.
Clemency, which won last year’s Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, is a fascinating character study. The sophomore feature of writer/director Chinonye Chukwu, Clemency gives Woodard a role worthy of her talents. She wastes not an opportunity to imbue her character with guilt, pride, strength, and pain.
The film takes audiences into the cold halls of a maximum-security prison. Bernadine rules as warden and has for nearly twenty years. She’s good at her job and she commands authority—no easy feat for a woman of colour in an environment almost exclusively populated by men. Bernadine’s finds her reputation on the line, however, when a medical officer botches an execution. The routine procedure doesn’t go as planned before a room of witnesses that includes the sentenced man’s wife. It’s a stain on Bernadine’s reputation as she nears retirement. The incident also fuels opposition to the death penalty just as the prison’s next inmate awaits his death writ.
That inmate is Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge). The media, and especially death penalty opponents, love him. He’s convicted of killing a cop during a robbery. But he insists upon his innocence. The fact that his alibi is another robbery makes the case juicier. Either way, Bernadine faces an unenviable task. She can clear her reputation by giving Woods a clean and dignified death. Alternatively, she can intervene and help a potentially innocent man walk away freely.
The simplicity of Clemency’s narrative lets the complexity of its themes and significance rest on Woodard’s talent. Killing people doesn’t get easier after twenty years of practice. Bernadine remains cool and collected as she walks her prison’s sterile halls. She remains steadfast in her compliance of all protocols. Any slight deviation from the rulebook invites the element of free will. Bernadine recognizes that being a stickler for the rules lets her rationalize that she is simply doing her job. Woods’ attorney, however, reminds Bernadine that people get to live when he does his.
Bernadine takes a closer interest in Woods than she presumably does in other inmates. She inquires after his health and spiritual practices. She takes an interest in his family life. Bernadine offers words of encouragement that the governor can grant him clemency. Chukwu deftly unfolds the conflict in Woodard’s growing restlessness as Bernadine wants to uphold her reputation. However, she anxiously awaits the call that will let her defer the opportunity to a later case.
Chukwu’s direction is subtle and precise as she uses minimalism to her advantage. Clemency is an actors’ showpiece and she knows it. The film finds an excellent breakthrough performer in Hodge who takes audiences through a gut-wrenching journey. This performance, like Woodard’s, relishes silence. It knows the weight and value of a single tear or a faraway stare.
Similarly, Clemency finds a rock of empathy and compassion in Wendell Pierce as Bernadine’s husband, Jonathan. The film offers something of a humourless counterpart to Marge and Norm Gunderson in the marriage of Bernadine and Jonathan Williams. Jonathan, largely confined to their domestic space and more focused on the romantic aspects of their relationship, like their anniversary and happiness in retirement, wants Bernadine to confront the destructive nature of her profession. Bernadine, a savage alcoholic, alienates herself from Jonathan—from everyone, really—as she self-medicates with libations to escape her burden.
Clemency is Woodard’s show as she explores Bernadine’s journey into annihilation. The film witnesses a woman administer her own death sentence. In the process, Bernadine complies with the duties of her barbaric institution in order to save face. Through Bernadine’s suffering, and that of Woods and others, Clemency uses an intimate story to blow open the human costs of capital punishment. To ask Bernadine to take a life is as grave as sin as those for which her inmates are punished. As Bernadine’s anguish peaks, the final moments of Clemency are undoubtedly the finest of Woodard’s career. In a single long take, Chukwu lets Bernadine’s remorse linger in close-up. Tears and snot run down Woodard’s face as the warden suffers the fatal sting of her actions. It is one of the most unsettling death scenes one could ever see, particularly for the dignity with which Bernadine solemnly administers it.
Clemency opens across Canada January 17 including in Toronto at TIFF Lightbox.