Film Review – Clemency (2019)

Title – Clemency (2019)

Director – Chinonye Chukwu (alaskaLand)

Cast – Alfre Woodard, Aldis Hodge, Wendell Pierce, Richard Schiff

Plot – Prison warden Bernadine Williams (Woodard) finds herself struggling to stay on top of her mental state as her job of overseeing state sanctioned killings of death row inmates takes it’s toll on her and her marriage with husband Jonathan (Pierce).

“All we want is to be seen and to be heard” 

Review by Eddie on 07/09/2020

Most of the time prison set films or films that deal with death row tend to focus on the inmates concerned, Clemency however takes a different look at the delicate subject matter by investing us into the mindset and shoes of those that play a part in this grizzly procedure that continues to divide opinion in the United States of America and around the world.

In what’s her second feature length film, Chinonye Chukwu’s Clemency (which can be found on Apple’s streaming service) focuses its attention on Oscar nominee Alfre Woodard’s long-serving career driven warden Bernadine Williams, who after a traumatizing lethal injection procedure goes pear shaped under her watch, begins to find her work life and personal life unraveling at the seams as the true burden of her role takes hold, made worse by the impending death sentence of Aldis Hodge’s Anthony Woods, a man of whom evidence suggests could in fact be innocent of the crime he has been sentenced for.

It’s a rare chance to see Woodard given time to lead the spotlight in a feature film and as you’d expect from such an experienced actress she’s the star of the show here with her confident and moving performance as William’s a highlight of the film with Woodard giving her complicated character a significant amount of grace, heart and soul as she navigates a peculiar and frightening path towards losing all that she holds dear while holding onto the traumas and worries of her unenviable job.

Whenever Woodard is front and centre of Chukwu’s film Clemency is a searing portrait of a topical subject matter but the film does struggle around its central figure despite the best efforts of a capable cast that includes The Wire’s Wendell Pierce, West Wing’s Richard Schiff and Straight Outta Compton’s Aldis Hodge whose character of Wood’s ends up being the films disappointment.

While Clemency is first and foremost a study of William’s increasingly fraying mental state and ability to maintain herself to the high standard she expects, the film would’ve benefited greatly from making Wood’s a more engaging component of Clemency’s heavy tale and while Hodge does a fine job with limited material, Wood’s doesn’t make for a gripping character in the film with little attention given to what made him the man he is, what lead him to this life of incarceration and state sanctioned death and most detrimental to the film, what type of friendship or the likes he has with Williams, that only ever feels ever so slightly explored.

As a study of grief, regret and doing one’s job at the sake of losing your humanity, Clemency is a top class participant but there’s a beating heart and power that it misses out on while it heads on its journey to a path of inevitable sadness.

Final Say – 

A fine showpiece for the talents of Woodard and an important examination of an issue that has long been worth debating, Clemency is a fine drama but one that could’ve been great had it made the most of all of its strands and players.

3 1/2 basketballs out of 5 

3 responses to “Film Review – Clemency (2019)

  1. I watched this film the same weekend I watched Bad Boys for Live. I see what you mean by the viewer almost being deprived of more insight into Aldis Hodge’s character, and thus why we’d “care” if he gets a stay of execution or not. To me, though, he represents just one of hypothetically many inmates in the same predicament…of being wrongly convicted and on death row.

    I’m quoting myself here, but the film was most compelling to me because it ‘does not blatantly make a case against the death penalty, everybody who is directly or indirectly involved in its successful enactment is deeply affected — it’s a no-win scenario. The Chaplain may have had a life calling to minister to those behind bars, but his wife sees the way it changes him. The Warden’s husband, a high school English teacher, is sick of coming home to an “empty shell of a wife.”’

    • Very interesting take mate! I liked a lot of this film just felt that it didn’t have the true power to make it something really special, I was moved by it in parts but not the way in which I feel as though it could’ve done had it nailed the characters completely.

  2. Pingback: Film Review – Clemency (2019)·

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