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. But, at its core Clemency directed by Chinoye Chuckwu is an intense dramatization the encompasses every aspect of prison life and those who have to 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. We watch like a fly on wall how she has to simultaneously comfort the family of the criminal, the family of the victims, all while trying to keep her composure through it all. After all, just like the criminals she so desperately is sworn to protect within those walls, she is just as caged up as they are. How does she 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. 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 quietly loses it. You can see every fiber of Woodard’s being screaming from the inside out. It’s chilling and an image I shall never forget.
Her 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 he physically inhabits while being told the details of execution as Warden’s voice remains calm and monotone is really wonder to behold.
At the end of the day, Clemency 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 was one of the best films I screened at Sundance and I am most proud to declare it was written and directed by a woman of color…Chinonye Chuckwu.