In any year, there are films that mysteriously don’t seem to click with the awards establishment and don’t get the glittering prizes they deserve, which are showered on far less deserving contenders. Writer-director Chinonye Chukwu’s lacerating death-row drama Clemency only arrived in the UK this summer, despite surfacing at the Sundance film festival in January 2019. It should have got Oscars, but didn’t, a distinction it shares with many brilliant films. Alfre Woodard gives a magnificent performance as Bernadine Williams, a US prison warden who has presided with icy professionalism over a great many executions. But when one of the lethal injections goes terribly wrong, the needle snapping and the prisoner dying in agony, it brings Bernadine to the point of an emotional breakdown. It is as if she herself has been absorbing the poison, drop by drop: her workplace hazard has been corruption of the soul and a hollowing-out of the identity. Now she must face the grisly theatre of a new execution – her 13th – and she is ready to snap.
Woodard’s performance conveys the terrible burden, something like a Shakespearean monarch who finds that uneasy lies the head that wears a crown. Bernadine is a kind of monarch or figurehead: she does not have the power to condemn, nor even to reprieve, though she can make recommendations to the parole board. She is just the face of what goes on, a modern, business suit-wearing technocrat who has to make everything look plausible and efficient. She must deal with the public, with the media, with her staff, with the prisoners’ devastated relatives and their legal representatives, and with the prisoners themselves.
Aldis Hodge has a tragic dignity as the condemned man, Anthony Woods, who has been on death row for 15 years and seen many illusory hopes disappear. He is like a lab rat in some plastic box in which the oxygen is being minutely withdrawn, month by month, year by year – and yet it turns out the warden is somehow inside the box as well. The film vividly conveys the rancid atmosphere of prison: a smell of thwarted hope. Inevitably, as a condemned man whose existence is now shaped entirely around his own imminent death, Woods achieves a Christ-like aura, like so many prisoners in death-row dramas – but this film shows how this is parodic, pointless and unsought. All the pseudo-Magdalenes and pseudo-centurions and pseudo-Pilates make the whole passion play even more queasy. Woods’s death will be a sacrificial offering into the void.
Richard Schiff is on great form as Woods’s careworn lawyer, whose own career and peace of mind has been broken by this case, and Danielle Brooks is similarly great as his ex-partner. The film also has the luxury of no less a performer than Wendell Pierce in the relatively small role of Bernadine’s husband, begging her to retire and resume with him a normal humanity. These are gold-standard performances, and Alfre Woodard is first among equals.