Inspired by the execution of Troy Davis in 2011 – whose conviction was dogged by controversy and who maintained his innocence to the end – Chinonye Chukwu’s Clemency is a sombre, layered study of the human cost of capital punishment. One of this era’s most powerful actors, Alfre Woodard, leads with one of her best, most understated performances yet.
Following the botched execution of one convict – leading to his protracted and painful death – prison warden Bernadine (Woodard) is given charge of the care and eventual killing of Anthony (Aldis Hodge), convicted of murder but with a great deal of doubt hanging over his guilt. Fighting his corner is Richard Schiff’s defence lawyer, Marty, while Bernadine’s loving marriage to Jonathan (Wendell Pierce), strains under the demands of her career.
In Clemency, Woodard is the anchoring centre amidst raging moral seas. One of the actor’s great traits is her quiet ferocity, staring down the interrogative gaze of the camera here as much her critics. Part of Clemency’s brilliance is that there are no villains here, no foes for her to lock horns with, save perhaps for the weary Marty. So that ferocity is turned inwards, corroding her own moral and professional stolidity in the face of institutionalised barbarity: the centre cannot hold, things fall apart.
Chukwu’s focus on the toll on the executioner over the executed skirts simplicity in favour of psychological complexity and moral nuance. Nevertheless, there’s never any question that what we are witnessing is evil in all its banality, from the literal tick-box exercises that Bernadine performs in the days leading up to Anthony’s execution date, to the macabre theatre of the execution room.
Ironically, when the film moves does move away from its centre of Bernadine, it becomes visibly weaker. Two key shots of Woodard making her long walk down the corridor that leads to the execution chamber are devastating, but elsewhere much of the film-making is a little too direct, in a few spots relying on a weirdly obvious bird metaphor and slightly-too consciously sombre lighting.
More successful is the theme of invisibility: each player in their own way is unseen and unseeing: Bernadine as the arm of blind justice is institutionally invisible; Anthony, of course, more so. That the theme is given figure in one of Jonathan’s literature classes on Ralph Ellison’s seminal novel about race in America simply lends it greater potency.
This is real, grown-up drama, avoiding mawkish sentimentality as well as moral polemicism. In one sense, Clemency’s serious topic and focus on performance is pure awards-bait. Perhaps – as Woodard’s unforgivable snub as last year’s Oscars suggests – Clemency is just a little too nuanced for the likes of the Academy.
Clemency is available to stream on Curzon Home Cinema from 17 July.
Christopher Machell | @MachellFilm