AFI Fest 2019: Clemency, by David Bax
Chinonye Chukwu brings no poetry to the long opening sequence of Clemency. Far from a complaint, though, that observation is a recommendation and also a warning. If you’re expecting a run of the mill issue advocacy movie from Chukwu’s death penalty drama, you’ll find instead that Clemency is something unique, methodical and unblinking. The opening relates, step by step and with no score, the process of killing a prisoner via lethal injection, demanding reflection on how sickly impersonal a thing it is and on how many people–guards, medics, a chaplain–it takes to kill someone. This is how movies ought to advocate when it comes to issues as serious as the death penalty.
One of the people it takes to kill someone, at least in this way, is our point of view character, Warden Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard). The execution we start with is the twelfth she’s overseen in her tenure at the prison and Clemency‘s plot unfolds in the time between that day and the day of the thirteenth, in which a man named Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge) will be slain by the same method. In that time, Bernadine contends with a husband (Wendell Pierce) urging her to consider retirement, a lawyer (Richard Schiff) arguing for Woods’ appeal and, most importantly, her own wearied conscience.
Chukwu, who also wrote Clemency‘s screenplay, only occasionally falters on the page (but not with the camera or in the editing room). Too much exposition is relayed via television news programs that are implausibly obsessed with Woods’ execution. More disappointingly, Chukwu spends too much time arguing for Woods’ innocence. Murder is one of the few absolute moral wrongs, state-sanctioned or not, and it would be no less abhorrent if Woods were guilty.
Clemency would agree with me about that but it makes this point without rousing speeches or lecturing. Instead, it practices a kind of immersion therapy. Chukwu relies more on the tools of filmmaking than those of screenwriting to make you feel–not just know–the effect that executions might have on the psyche of someone in Bernadine’s position. The constant din of protesters outside the prison, for instance, suggests there are similar voices inside her head all the time.
For most of its nevertheless captivating running time, Clemency is an exercise in mundanity. Bernadine’s hell lies in the way even the most innocuous part of her day is infused with dread and guilt. And still the tension builds as we approach the day of Woods’ death and his only escape–Bernadine’s too–lies in the hope of a last minute phone call from the governor. What kind of civilization is that?