Director: Chinonye Chukwu
Stars: Alfre Woodard, Wendell Pierce, Aldis Hodge
Clemency is a film about two people who are disappearing. The first of these is Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard), warden of a prison, borderline alcoholic and absentee wife. Her increasingly stifling and stressful work environment is eroding her attachments to life. Her marriage to Jonathan (Wendell Pierce) is on the rocks. Clemency lawyers vilify her. She holds great pride in her profession, but it is eating her up inside. She is tight, taught; a person wrapped up in invisible barbed wire.
The second is Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge). His time on death row is coming to an end. His execution approaches and, as it does so, the sheer horror of his situation is rendering him inert, paralysed, scared to death, if you’ll pardon the expression. Mortality is a grim reality for both of these people. For Woods it is horrifyingly literal, for Bernadine it is the unarticulated terror of a metaphorical death; a terror she wakes from in the middle of the night, yelling in spite of herself.
If this is all sounds horribly oppressive… that’s kind of the point. Nigerian-American director Chinonye Chukwu’s searing Sundance favourite from way-back at the start of 2019 finally makes its appearance on UK shores in the anonymity of VOD, and that’s a shame, as this pressure cooker film deserves a better lease of life. It is in danger of slipping through the cracks in a similar manner to Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre’s exceptional prison film The Mustang from last year.
Where that film (DO find it) showed the potential for rehabilitation, Chukwu’s gives a more fractious and dispirited appearance. Retirement is on the lips of most of the characters. Jonathan wants Bernadine to step down; Anthony’s beleaguered lawyer Marty (Richard Schiff) is too frustrated to continue. Even the prison chaplain, David (Michael O’Neill), is thinking of calling it quits. In many ways, Clemency is about the exhaustion of high-pressure work. You can feel the tension in the necks of these people. The bunches in their shoulders as they’re contorted by worry, fatigue and the resilience required to simply exist in their day-to-day.
Grey permeates the film in all matters. The prison is lifelessly dreary. Corridors and cells devoid of potency as though colour itself is denied in those walls; a privilege of the free. Grey makes up almost all of Bernadine’s clothing choices. If there’s a feeling that she’s disappearing, it is physically manifested in these outfits, which almost see her blending into the walls of her work – at one with the environment but also consumed by it, as though the prison is literally swallowing her. Grey is also the colour of the sheets on her and Jonathan’s marital bed; a place that doubles as a kind of battle ground between the two of them manifesting in a series of stalemates.
Both Bernadine and Anthony need to rekindle the sense of life inside them that’s become a modest ember. Anthony’s trajectory seems initially to be a foregone conclusion. He doesn’t speak. He tries to kill himself before the state can. His eyes are overwhelmed as though on the brink of madness. The second half of the picture sees a kind of welcome resurgence in the man, brought on in the main by his renewed connection to other people. A new strength finds him. But maybe this rise is in itself, a fool’s errand. It could be the penultimate act of cruelty in his life. Bernadine, meanwhile, fights for her marriage, rejects offers to go for drinks at the local dive after work, but her struggle still feels too much like treading water. Still she’s a person only just keeping her head above the surface, prideful and intrinsically connected to her sense of duty in her work.
Marty and ever-present picketers plead Anthony’s innocence. With their combined voices growing louder on the peripheries, the inevitable question, brimming with irony, is who is the real prisoner here? Bernadine makes a small breakthrough talking it out with her husband (after over an hour of stifled silences), but still she’s at arm’s length. Meanwhile, as his execution nears, Anthony seems to see a kind of freedom available to him in acceptance.
Chukwu’s rigor behind the camera brings to mind the humanist intensity that defines the films of Steve McQueen, and not just his own stern prison film Hunger. Woodard’s Bernadine evokes the fused defiance of Viola Davis in Widows, while the overarching theme of people making prisons for themselves is wound up tightly in Shame. Chukwu’s Clemency fits in well with these pictures, and marks her out as an emerging talent with this, her second and most garlanded feature. Woodard and Hodge are worthy of Oscar nominations and I’d be surprised if neither of them got one.
This is tough work, and it’s not an easy pick to wind down over the weekend with, especially with *waves arms in the air* everything else we’ve got going on right now. But it is worth your investment. Steal yourself for the experience ahead and give over to it. One of the year’s most impressive films.