Clemency, a film set on an American prison’s Death Row, starts with a bodged killing, though it’s one planned by the State. We don’t know the details of Victor Jimenez’s crimes, or his life, but we witness his final, panic-stricken moments.
The gurney with its leather straps was awaiting him, standing vertical like a cross. Once he’s strapped in the medics can’t find a vein, and when they finally do, and begin administering the drugs that will stop his heart, something goes wrong as he twitches in pain and blood oozes from him.
The open curtain in front of the glass between them and the witnesses is pulled shut. His mother is sobbing into her rosary. Everyone looks as if the breath has been wrenched from them as he’s finally declared dead.
Clemency forces us to face up to the toll the death penalty takes, and who it turns into accessories. I watched it in the last days of last year and it’s easily one of 2019’s best films – with a remarkable performance from Alfre Woodard as prison warden Bernadine Williams.
The ramifications, emotional, psychological and administrative, are far reaching for Bernadine, who – if not exactly hardened by the multiple executions she has managed – has until now kept the weight of her disquiet secret from herself as well as everyone else.
Her whole team is affected, but she seems the loneliest despite her teacher husband Jonathan (Wendell Peirce) at home. He’s frustrated by the stoicism that has solidified into a carapace she’s built around herself, but it doesn’t protect her from insomnia as she sits on their sofa at 4am watching TV. After work she heads to the local bar the prison staff frequent but she can never really reach them either.
Many people need saving in Clemency, and it’s interesting seeing the dynamic of Marty Lumetta (Richard Schiff), the white, middle-aged, male Death Row lawyer against Bernadine Williams, the black, middle-aged woman warden. It’s an endless, repetitive, wearying existence, and they’re both getting too old – he’s just been shown how to do a Snapchat press conference by a young lawyer. He and Bernadine, and compassionate prison chaplain Kendricks (Michael O’Neill) have reached the end of the line with an outdated punishment system that’s weighted against particular groups of people.
Once Jimenez is dead, the next man scheduled to be executed is Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge) a young African American man found guilty of killing a policeman.
Anthony’s relationship with Bernadine is central to Chinonye Chukwu’s film, which won the US Dramatic Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival last year (Chukwu, who wrote and directed, was the first black woman to win). Woodard and Hodges’ performances are faultless as two people moulded by a relentless, cynically cyclical system, like stones in a slow-moving river; Chukwu’s direction is calmly devastating.
It’s never made clear if Anthony is innocent, and it’s not really the point anyway. Hodge is movingly desperate as Anthony, angry as he suffers the torture and powerlessness of waiting to die, a death he will have no control over despite dangled glimmers of hope.
Clemency also highlights our expectations of women. Before the execution, Jimenez’s mother weeps in a tiny institutional waiting room, expecting solace from the warden opposite her. But Bernadine offers nothing in the way of sympathy, just facts about what and when will happen. It shows not just the conflicted burdens she carries but also the expectations we put on other women, and especially black women, to look after others and share our pain, to bridge the gap and hug us, even in an institution. Bernadine is required to be whatever the State, prisoners and victims ask of her.
The State is focused on administrative layers that need to be checked and ticked off, the crumbs of autonomy (last meal, where he wants to be buried) thrown to Anthony. As Bernadine asks for his answers she tries to inject humanity into a process that’s positioned to its prisoner as a mutual endeavour.
Powerlessness sees condemned men seizing any control they can. Anthony smashes his head into his cell wall, an unfocused suicide attempt that’s destined to fail. Jimenez, it transpires, hadn’t drunk any water before his execution, making it far harder for the medic to find a vein to insert the needle and tube. Why didn’t he drink any water, Bernadine asks in irritation afterwards.
Around Anthony, the lawyer, warden and chaplain are bowed by the weight of what they are doing, though Bernadine’s is always the heaviest load, one she cannot escape at work, at home and even in sleep. Outside her office are shouting, placard-waving activists who Mr and Mrs Collins, the parents of the cop Anthony was convicted of killing, must walk past before Mrs Collins begs Bernadine to be allowed in the viewing gallery.
Hope rises and falls. Anthony’s ex-girlfriend Evette (the excellent Danielle Brooks) careers back into his life after years of estrangement, a conversation as personal and as vital as could be conducted via telephone as they watch each other.
Clemency highlights the effects of working within the system, though while it’s rage-inducing and enervating, it’s also quietly riveting and never preachy. It is probably, if not preaching, then talking to the converted, and one gets the impression that there will be another prison chaplain, lawyer and warden to continue the process even as the three we meet step away, exhausted. But films like this at least add to the chip-chip-chipping away at the scaffolding that upholds legalised death as punishment.
Much of its power is down to Woodard, who is mesmerising as the camera hangs for minutes on her face, strained by the weight of exhaustion, and responsibility finally acknowledged. But most of all it’s the isolation she feels, that her husband Jonathan cannot breach, or her deputy, or the chaplain, or the lawyer, or the prisoner.
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