Film & Television

Alfre Woodard Bears Witness in ‘Clemency’

On April 29, 2014, Clayton Lockett, a convicted murderer, was scheduled to be executed by the State of Oklahoma. He was injected with an untested combination of drugs that precipitated a heart attack, rather than the expected sequence of unconsciousness, paralysis, and cardiac arrest. It took 43 minutes for Lockett to die, during which he was conscious, convulsive, and in pain.

In the wake of the botched execution, President Obama, stating that it “fell short of humane standards,” ordered a comprehensive review of how death penalties were administered across the U.S. Executions were suspended pending the findings.

Nearly a year ago, the Trump administration said that the review was concluded and that executions could be scheduled again. This past week, Attorney General Barr announced that the federal government (after a 20-year hiatus) would begin executing criminals again next month. Three procedures are scheduled for July and one for August. “The four murderers whose executions are scheduled today have received full and fair proceedings under our Constitution and laws,” he said. “We owe it to the victims of these horrific crimes, and to the families left behind, to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system.”

Capital punishment is a divisive issue. Those who support it cite the Bible’s “an eye for an eye,” although in the actual passage from the Book of Matthew, Jesus encourages disciples to turn the other cheek instead. (“An eye for an eye” actually predates The New Testament and traces back to ancient Mesopotamia.) Many think that the threat of the death penalty deters crime. Others believe that by committing one or more of the most heinous crimes, the perpetrator has forfeited the right to live.

Detractors point out that vengeance is not synonymous with justice or, more conversationally, that two wrongs don’t make a right. They are quick to point to horrors like Lockett’s death and to the number of innocent people wrongly accused and convicted. States that have the death penalty (there are currently 28) spend hundreds of millions of dollars on trials, automatic appeals, habeas corpus petitions, and incarceration on death row — sometimes for decades. 

No matter which side you choose to take, there is a great difference between theoretical executions and watching a living, breathing human being die.

In Clemency, Chinonye Chukwu’s stunning second feature film, that difference is impossible to ignore.

The movie opens as Warden Bernadine Williams (the always outstanding Alfre Woodard) is preparing for her twelfth execution. She spends a few minutes with the mother of the convicted; she’s efficient and thorough, completely honest, neither cruel nor cold. When it’s clear that there will be no last-minute reprieve, she and her staff move through tightly choreographed, almost ritualistic maneuvers. Victor Jimenez (Alex Castillo), the convicted, is shackled and walked down a long hallway flanked by guards and followed by a chaplain. He’s strapped to a gurney, arms outstretched, and restrained by multiple thick leather straps. A medic should then insert the needle for the three-phase injection. But, as in Lockett’s real-life execution, things go terribly wrong.

Bernadine remains professional throughout the gruesome ordeal. She quickly closes the curtain that separates the witnesses from the execution chamber. She orders the medic to correct the situation in a clipped and measured voice. Jimenez does die eventually, but not in the orderly and allegedly civilized way sanctioned by the state. The chaotic scene and his painful death seem to wake something inside of Bernadine. She can’t admit it yet, but it’s clear that she can’t witness many more of these.

Bernadine is very good at what she does. But it takes a terrible toll. She drinks excessively after work with her deputy warden (Richard Gunn). She has a strained relationship with her school- teacher husband (Wendell Pierce). She has an unspoken understanding with the prison’s chaplain (Michael O’Neill). And, she has a longstanding relationship with the public defender, Marty (Richard Schiff), who is representing another death row inmate. “I do my job,” Bernadine is quick to say. “I do my job. You want to play it as good guys and bad guys, and I’m one of the bad guys. I give these men respect, Marty — all the way through.”

“But, when I win,” Marty reminds her, “A person gets to live.”

Marty’s current client is Anthony Woods (Hidden Figures Aldis Hodge), a man convicted for killing a police officer during a robbery. The evidence supporting Woods’s appeal is compelling — the shooter was shorter than Woods; he was left-handed while Woods is right-handed. But Clemency is not about whether Woods is innocent or guilty, whether he’s exonerated or not. No matter how good Hodge is in the role (and he, along with every member of the cast, is indefatigably exceptional throughout), this isn’t his story. It’s Bernadine’s.

Clemency is a character study of a woman whose professionalism seamlessly masks her character. We see her dreams (she is haunted by Jimenez); we see her self-destructive after-hours behavior; we see her poisoning her marriage, although there is real love there. We never see her crack on the job — whether she is meeting with the parents of the dead policeman, rehearsing the execution process with her staff, or explaining that process to Woods and the decisions he needs to make. (“Would you like witnesses there?” “Are there plans for the disposal of your body?”) I can think of very few actresses who can convey as much inner life hidden behind the emotionless barricade she’s constructed for herself.

Bernadine is in charge of 1,000 inmates and probably dozens of guards, and almost always the only woman present. She is in a position of authority, but not of power. She waits for a call from the Governor, just as her condemned inmates and their attorneys do. And then, she does her job, even as it slowly eats her soul. If there was ever a woman who deserved to retire, it’s she.

Ironically, every man in her orbit is retiring. Woods will be Marty’s last client. The chaplain has promised his wife that he’ll leave his calling. Even Bernadine’s husband has checked with their financial advisor and is ready to stop teaching. Bernadine resists the idea. You get the sense that she wouldn’t know what to do with herself without her job, which is more a duty than a position. “Because you can’t know what it’s like to look at these people every day, to talk to them every day — look in their faces, look in their family’s faces. You can’t know that because you don’t do what I do — what I have to do.”

Clemency won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, as well as other festival awards, in 2019. If the film had a wider release, or if the Academy were more sympathetic to films by women and filmmakers of color, it and its star would have been worthy nominees for Oscars. The film is excellent, and at times deeply disturbing. You may be tempted to look away. But, don’t.

Right now, there are more than 60 federal prisoners sentenced to death, including the Boston Marathon bombing’s Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. No matter where you fall on the issue of capital punishment, both your awareness and your empathy will be raised by Chukwu’s superb and powerful film.

Clemency is available to stream on Hulu and to rent or buy on Amazon Prime.

 

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