Led by a riveting performance from Alfre Woodard, Clemency took home the U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury Prize during the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.
Life for prison warden Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard) isn’t getting easy. She appears to be married to her job more so than to husband Jonathan Williams (Wendell Pierce). It isn’t just any ordinary job. She’s the one who is in the room when prisoners get executed by way of lethal injection. We first meet her when one prisoner, Victor Jimenez (Alex Castillo), is undergoing his lethal injection. Unfortunately, he didn’t drink any water that day so no good vein was found. This means having to improvise and while the prisoner did eventually die, it wasn’t a pretty one to say the least.
Despite the botched execution, there’s no rest for the weary. Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge) is the next prisoner up for death by lethal injection. It means another visit from attorney Marty Lumetta (Richard Schiff). Just as the job takes a toll on Bernadine, it also takes one on Marty. This case marks Marty’s last case before retirement. Marty is all set to retire regardless of whether or not he’s successful in getting clemency for Anthony’s sentence by the governor.
One can’t help but wonder as to if Deputy Thomas Morgan (Richard Gunn) will take over for Bernadine. After all, this is not an easy job to do. Even though it doesn’t happen by the time that the credits start, it feels very well possible at some point.
To say that Alfre Woodard is superb in the role would not be an understatement. This is a role that requires a lot of emotions more so than just reciting dialogue. As such, there are a lot of layers to this role-for which the actress brings her A game. Among the performances I saw during Sundance–and I saw more than a handful–Woodard will certainly be among the Oscar front runners for Best Actress in a Leading Role.
Writer-director Chinonye Chukwu’s research has given us a portrayal of prison life that we rarely see as viewers. More often than not, we see the same portrayal on films and television. Most of these depictions have at least one epic fight on display. But is what we see in TV and movies what really happens on the inside? What Clemency shows is a much different portrayal of not only prison life but for the prison warden as well. It’s a portrayal in which you can’t help but feel some compassion for those involved.
DIRECTOR/SCREENWRITER: Chinonye Chukwu
CAST: Alfre Woodard, Richard Schiff, Danielle Brooks, Michael O’Neill, Richard Gunn, Vernee Watson, Dennis Haskins, LaMonica Garrett, Michelle Bonilla, with Wendell Pierce and Aldis Hodge