Review: Clemency

PLOT: A prison warden grapples with the upcoming demise of a prisonor under her care facing lethal injection.

REVIEW: The end of the year always finds a number of high profile Academy Award contenders, film’s that also have the luxury of having a decent advertising budget in hopes of winning Oscar gold. Yet you’ll also find a selection of smart and powerful stories that don’t receive as much attention. One film that’s arriving just in time for Christmas is CLEMENCY, a thought provoking drama about a warden dealing the pressures of her job, as well as her personal life. The film stars Alfre Woodard, and if you are in the mood for an incredible performance, this is one film that you won’t be disappointed in. Writer/director Chinonye Chukwu explores the subject of the death penalty, and how it affects those on both sides of the law. It’s a profound feature, one that examines the subject matter without forcing its message on the viewer.

Alfre Woodard is Warden Bernadine Williams. She is smart and handles the many pressures of her job professionally without being overcome by the turmoil that's included. After a disastrous attempt to take the life of convicted felon Victor Jimenez (Alex Castillo), she finds herself facing a series of lawyers and angry protestors. All the while, Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge) is next in line to receive lethal injection. Meanwhile, both Williams and Woods face an emotionally complicated path, with Woods terrified of facing his punishment, and Williams dealing with a struggling marriage. The closer they get to his final hours on Earth, Hodge and his attorney seek out clemency for his crimes in hopes of living out his years in prison instead of the current situation.

Clemency, Alfre Woodard, Aldis Hodge, LaMonica Garrett, Chinonye Chukwu, drama,, 2019

As good as this film is, one of the most important factors in its success is the inspired casting of Ms. Woodard. While I’ve seen her give numerous fantastic performances, it’s wonderful to see her headline a film such as this. The actress lends such an honest voice to Bernadine. She is a layered character, one that is fully in charge of her position at the prison, and how she cares for those under her watch. Unfortunately she has lost that all important connection with her husband Jonathan (Wendell Pierce). She is flawed, yet clearly yearns to do what is right, whether its for the prisoners or her spouse. By focusing on her struggle and avoiding the urge to turn this into a overly sentimental movie of the week, Chukwu has created an intelligent examination on this controversial subject matter.

CLEMENCY is not a flashy film, nor is it overly stylized. It’s a simple story, and the filmmaker approaches it with grace and a quiet intensity. The opening shot of Bernadine walking down a long prison hallway is repeated a few times. Each time it happens, we see yet another layer revealed about her character. The same can be said the more we learn about the man facing his mortality. And speaking of terrific performances, Aldis Hodge is especially effective here. While we are not given too much information on his crimes, it’s a fascinating approach not revealing in full what he’s guilty of. With this, the audience is allowed to examine his situation – along with hers – without extreme judgement or bias. This is a personal story for both, one that offers no easy answer, just a powerful tale.

Clemency, Alfre Woodard, Aldis Hodge, LaMonica Garrett, Chinonye Chukwu, drama,, 2019

You really have to admire how delicately this subject matter is handled by Chinonye Chukwu, as it would have been very easy to manipulate the audience with a heavy handed message Instead, she skillfully examines a prison system where the punishment is death as an observer. The filmmaker offers you this particular story without manipulating one's view. Perhaps some may feel differently as they avoid painting Woods as a stereotypical violent criminal, but it’s far more satisfying wondering what led him to his terrible predicament. That’s not to say it’s forcing you to feel sorry for him, or even forgive him, but by taking a more pragmatic approach you are given the chance to better understand what it must be like in his situation.

CLEMENCY handles the controversial subject of the death penalty with assuredness, without resorting to heavy doses of sentimentality. With a haunting and minimalistic music score, this is a direct and fascinating approach, one that is handled so deftly that it makes for a more satisfying feature film. As impressive as her work is behind the camera, the casting choices by Chukwu really help make this worth witnessing. Alfre Woodard is an extraordinary talent, and she gives a bold and sublime performance here. As well, Hodge manages to give you perhaps a little more understanding of what it's like having to pay for your sins on death row. At a time when we are bombarded by Oscar talk, here’s hoping that audiences will take notice of this intelligent drama.

Review: Clemency




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JimmyO is one of’s longest-tenured writers, with him reviewing movies and interviewing celebrities since 2007 as the site’s Los Angeles correspondent.