Clemency (2019) ★★★1/2
Written and directed by Chinonye Chukwu
Clemency looks closely at the bureaucratic processes and day-to-day workplace politics behind the administration of the death penalty. In doing so, it powerfully argues that the death penalty is psychologically cruel to the prisoners who receive it as a sentence, the prison workers who carry out the executions, and even the families of those victimized by crime. It’s one of the most intellectually engaging movies I’ve seen over the past year, one that forced me to sit with a lot of difficult questions that went beyond whether or not the death penalty should exist.
The movie opens on the evening of an execution, overseen by the prison warden, Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard). Warden Williams is pensive as she manages the people who will join her in the execution room: a priest, a security officer, her deputy, and a medic who will give the convicted man with a lethal chemical injection. Everyone seems tense as they strive to follow set procedures. When the medic has difficulty finding a good vein, the injection goes shockingly wrong, resulting in a cruel, painful death that leaves everyone shaken.
Because executions are attended by members of the press and generally well publicized, Warden Williams has to do damage control after the botched injection. She also has to prepare for another execution, a particularly controversial one: the condemned prisoner is a young Black man, Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge), convicted of killing a police officer. Woods has maintained his innocence, and there’s a powerful lawyer (Richard Schiff) trying to use every last legal channel to stay his execution. Woods’s case has also attracted protesters, who picket every day, within earshot of Warden Williams’s office. Although it seems likely that Woods is innocent, the movie doesn’t dwell on the details of his case. Instead, it boldly places you in Warden William’s point of view, forcing you to wrestle with the reality of her work, which includes planning executions.
Clemency looks closely at the details of administrating such a heinous task. It’s the warden’s job to inform an inmate of the date of his death, and to describe the process of dying. The warden must ask the inmate what he would like to eat for his last meal and if he would like a clergy member present. She must plan a dress rehearsal for the execution, deal with last requests from family members of the death row inmate, receive family members of victims, and field press inquiries. It’s an incredible amount of work, all of it psychologically taxing, and no one appreciates it — in fact, it is reviled.
I don’t know how Alfre Woodard did it, but she managed to convey Warden William’s conflicting emotions as she carries out her duties, as well as years of buried psychological stress. Her dialogue is rarely expository, or even particularly emotional, leaving Woodard’s performance to fill in the blanks. Writer and director Chinonye Chukwu gives her several contemplative moments in the office and the bar, and I often felt that I could read her thoughts. I saw her as someone who had always relied on stoicism as a way of preserving her authority, and to give the inmates on death row space for their own emotions. But it’s clear that this attitude has come at great personal cost. She has insomnia, and difficulty connecting emotionally to her husband — or anyone outside of her work. In private moments with her deputy, she reveals distaste for some of the tasks she must perform — she calls the ritual of the last meal “bullshit” — but I had the sense that in most situations, she didn’t feel she could afford to reveal her opinions, because to do so would invite controversy.
Clemency doesn’t hit you over the head with its politics; instead it forces you to observe the reality of our current prison system and ask yourself if you would be comfortable administering the death penalty. And if not, would you be comfortable telling someone else to do it on your behalf?