Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard) is a woman, a wife and a person of color in the most stressful occupation one could ever imagine…a warden at a prison. A prison that is being investigated for a lethal injection procedure gone awry all because the medical professional couldn’t find a viable vein. Directed by Chinonye Chuckwu, Clemency is an intense dramatization which encompasses every aspect of prison life and those who navigate in and around that world.
The imagery of watching Bernadine process of her 12th execution become final is raw, real, disturbing and closest to what I imagine sending a human being to their death would feel like. As a fly on wall, we watch how Bernadine has to simultaneously comfort the family of the criminal, the family of the victims, all while trying to keep her composure and sanity through it all. After all, just like the criminals she is so desperately sworn to protect within those walls, she is just as caged up as they are. How does Bernadine escape? She drinks to help her sleep only to be awaken by the faces of those lives that were administered lethal injection at her supervision.
Chinonye Chuckwu perfectly encapsulates and humanizes lawyers, criminals and prison staff in this heart stopping drama. This is by far a career best for the legendary Alfre Woodard and Aldis Hodge. The list of moments I could refer to as to why are too numerous to recount. But, I will say this. The scene where Mr. Woods (Aldis Hodge) has been lethally injected and Bernadine (Woodard) quietly loses it allows the audience to see every fiber of her character screaming from the inside out. It’s chilling and an image I shall never forget.
Woodard’s performance is only enhanced by Wendell Pierce, as the husband who desperately tries to reconnect with his mentally tortured wife. If you thought you had seen the best of Danielle Brooks on Orange is the New Black or on Broadway in The Color Purple, well baby you better buckle your seat belt, because this performance will take your breath away. Last, certainly not least, Aldis Hodge is another career best performer in Clemency. The myriad of emotions physically inhabited while being told the details of his execution as Warden’s voice remains calm and monotone is really wonder to behold.
At the end of the day, this film will leave you asking can one find hope in other people’s decisions and are men in prison simply invisible because people refuse to see them? Clemency has been one of the best films screened in 2019 and I am most proud to declare it was written and directed by a woman of color…Chinonye Chuckwu.