Clemency January 11, 2021
Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard) is the warden of a Georgia prison. She’s been doing this job for a while and considers herself very good at it — an outlier in her class, even. She believes that, unlike other wardens, she “gives these men respect” — works hard to make sure that once they’re released back into the world, they’re well-equipped to reenter the labor force. (She doesn’t give any examples that we hear.) Sometimes she morally questions what she’s doing. But she has long been able to reassure herself that she’s just following the rules, and that when you’re following the rules you should neither break them nor wholeheartedly agree with all of them. They’re there for a reason. Williams does her job effectively. When we watch her at work, there seems not a situation for which she will not be prepared.
In Clemency (2019), writer-director Chinonye Chukwu’s second filmmaking effort, Williams' long-steady resolve starts to splinter. The movie opens with one of her inmates’ botched execution; as he squirms and squirms, she’s the one looking in his eyes. For the rest of the film, Williams mulls over the impending execution of Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge), a Black man convicted for killing a police officer who is widely believed innocent. (Clemency was partially inspired by the 2011 execution of Troy Davis, who was imprisoned and then put to death under similar circumstances.) Williams has overseen some 12 executions in the course of her career; this time feels different to her — like it's going to be the blow that destroys her after years of her subconscious beating her down.
Centrally Clemency is a character study about a woman who has decidedly lost herself to an emotionally burdensome job — who yearns to be “whole” again but who also is too dedicated to a position that by nature destroys one’s humanity. (Williams’ husband, played by Wendell Pierce, notes that she seems to him like an empty shell; Williams knows deep down that this is true but balks when he suggests they both retire in an act of last-ditch self-preservation.) Woodard, giving one of the great performances of the 2010s, is tremendous — a vision of steely tenacity at work but an embodiment of emptiness at home. (She sponges in alcohol whenever she can.) It’s eerie how capably she conveys how Williams’ on-the-clock talent for numbing herself has started infiltrating her personal life to a damning degree.
Clemency is ultimately meant to be taken in as a pragmatic advocacy drama — demonstrate the inhumanity of the prison-industrial complex and capital punishment. It astutely examines the toll the system takes on both those directly victimized by it and those who work within it — that is to say those workers who think they can do so and keep their humanity intact. The film seems to have been made as an antidote to romanticized movies dealing with the justice system. One watches Clemency aware of how a film with a similar narrative could turn, in hands less practical than Chukwu’s, into a race-against-time thriller starring Woods’ lawyer (Richard Schiff) that concludes with a last-minute victory, with Williams defined as more straightforwardly villainous. Movies like that can be effective when done properly. But I can think of more features that use the criminal justice system more as a backdrop, not examined with very much nuance, in a thriller-style story than I can movies like
Clemency, which above all scrutinize the brutality of the institutions that make these stories possible in the first place.
The movie doesn’t misguidedly want us to above all sympathize with Williams — more observe how she’s being squished. (I wish the film discussed in more depth why she was drawn to this job initially, and why she has stuck with it for so long.) Clemency wisely spends ample time with the soft-spoken Woods and his disintegrating optimism, amplifying the dissonance between Williams’ shrugs about “just doing her job” and “giving these men respect” and Woods’ reality. (The film’s best scene might be the one where he is visited by a former girlfriend, played movingly by Danielle Brooks, who after years of it eating at her wants to explain to him why she acted the way she did shortly after he was locked up.) We look at Williams and think about how it’s a fallacy to take on a powerful position within an unjust system and think it’s possible to simplistically do good. And we think about how when she says as both a reassurance to herself and those who criticize her that she’s simply following guidelines how many ills are upheld when twisted standards are blindly followed rather than challenged.
At the end of Clemency, the camera rests on Williams’ face for about three minutes during a particularly volcanic moment. What ensues is a tour-de-force of acting — an affecting demonstration of Williams’ moral compass and the evils inherent to her job bombastically clashing within her and manifesting on her face. As pointed out by critic Matt Fagerholm, the creepy last shot of the movie seems to suggest the character’s soul has left her body entirely. This sounds hyperbolic on the face of it. But when someone’s inner misgivings about their morally thorny job continue to go unvoiced while they nonetheless continue to practice the atrocities inextricable from that morally thorny job, what choice, after a while, does the soul have? Clemency reminds us that no one benefits from this system. All it does is destroy. A-