Sundance 2019: Clemency

Alfre Woodard and Alex Castillo appear in Clemency by Chinonye Chokwu, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Courtsey of Sundance Institute. Photo by Eric Branco.

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.

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

Clemency held its world premiere during the 2019 Sundance Film Festival in the U.S. Dramatic Competition. Grade: 4/5

Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.