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15 July 2020updated 14 Sep 2021 2:14pm

Chinonye Chukwu’s Clemency: a study of the effect that the death penalty has on the living

Alfre Woodard’s peerless acting makes a lasting impression in this death row drama.

By Ryan Gilbey

Is Alfre Woodard Hollywood’s best-kept secret or a symbol of its worst oversights? For more than 40 years, this unpredictable actor has lent her guarded intelligence and emotional acuity to an eclectic array of parts, from recurring TV roles (Desperate Housewives, Marvel’s Luke Cage) to indelible turns in award-winners (12 Years a Slave, Cross Creek) and franchise instalments (Annabelle, Star Trek: First Contact). Had a white actor crafted a performance as fine-grained as the one she gives in John Sayles’ 1992 film Passion Fish, where she plays a nurse administering discreetly tough love to a pampered, paraplegic ex-soap star, they would likely have had plum parts dangled in front of them like grapes before a Roman emperor. “If I had the access that some of my Caucasian colleagues had, what I’ve done might lay out on a spreadsheet differently,” she told Time magazine recently, proving that her talents extend to diplomacy.

To hell with the spreadsheet. Her work in the death row drama Clemency offers ample proof that she is operating at the highest altitude of screen acting. She plays Bernadine Williams, a steely, buttoned-up prison warden who has prosecuted 12 successful executions. Putting a man to death is all in a day’s work. It’s small talk and tenderness she struggles with.

Hers is the first face we see, filling the screen as she strides along empty corridors to meet the mother of the man she is about to kill. She reminds the sobbing parent that there is always the chance of a last-minute reprieve from the governor, then recoils from her embrace and touches her hand instead, careful to offer no more than the statutory minimum of hope and tactility.

That execution goes ahead, beset by terrible complications that threaten Bernadine’s sense of control. (The scene is necessarily harrowing; several extras cast as prison guards were replaced after balking at the job of strapping fellow actors to a gurney.) Her domestic life, meanwhile, is flatlining. She gets sloshed regularly in a local bar then returns home to a husband (the inestimable Wendell Pierce) who laments their moribund marriage. “I need a pulse, Bernadine!” he cries, not long after the scene in which we have heard the racing heartbeat of a condemned man.

Silent suffering is Woodard’s forte: she was born with her cards close to her chest. Her skill throughout Clemency lies in communicating Bernadine’s torment through potent drops that barely disturb her calm facade. Production design also does its bit. In Bernadine’s office, the vertical blinds are as confining as iron bars, while the widescreen compositions make her seem estranged from any visitors. She is in solitary confinement long before she admits as much to her husband (“I am alone and nobody can fix it”). Minor relief is supplied by two tiny paintings of pastoral scenes which represent no less desperate a gesture to the outside world than the drawings of birds with which Anthony (Aldis Hodge), a convicted murderer, has papered one wall of his cell.

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It is this prisoner’s upcoming execution that is partly the catalyst for Bernadine’s gradual unravelling. She addresses him through the bars, but what they have is not a conversation (she talks, he listens) and at no point during these scenes do they share any physical space. Despite the presence of a campaigning lawyer (Richard Schiff), any suspense in the film hinges not on a possible reprieve for Anthony but on whether he and Bernadine will be granted a moment of connection and shown in the same shot.

Though implicitly positioned against capital punishment, Clemency is scarcely an issue-driven film in the mould of Dead Man Walking so much as a study of the effect that the death penalty has on the living. The Nigerian-American writer-director Chinonye Chukwu throws in a few overhead shots to suggest divine omniscience, as well as some pointless dream sequences, but her film is at its strongest when it sticks to the corporeal.

Her one genuinely disastrous choice comes at the end of the picture, when the contemplative atmosphere is ruined by Laura Mvula crooning “I have died a thousand times” before launching into an emphatic chorus of “Do you believe in a brighter dawn?” Mvula’s “Brighter Dawn” is not the first song to destroy a carefully calibrated emotional effect and it won’t be the last, but there’s something uniquely disappointing about a film that proceeds with restraint and austerity only to throw in a last-minute bid for the inspirational.

What makes a more lasting impression is the exemplary acting, particularly from Danielle Brooks, who has a knockout scene as Anthony’s unsentimental ex-girlfriend, refusing to soft-pedal her reasons for deserting him even as he faces mortality. Her performance was eligible for this year’s Academy Awards, as was Woodard’s, but neither was nominated. Perhaps voters reasoned that Cynthia Erivo would also be in the running for her portrayal of the anti-slavery activist Harriet Tubman in Harriet. That’s one performer of colour recognised among the year’s acting categories. What more does anyone want? 

“Clemency” is available to stream from 17 July

Clemency (15)
dir: Chinonye Chukwu

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This article appears in the 15 Jul 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Race for the vaccine