Clemency debuted at Sundance 2019 where Chinonye Chukwu became the first black woman to win the grand jury prize. It stars Alfre Woodard as a prison warden who is confronted by her own psychological demons as an inmate faces a death sentence.
It seems like a bizarre twist of fate that the UK release of CLEMENCY is now. It was first shown at Sundance Film Festival in early 2019 and then released in America late last year. But it’s now, that it is finally being distributed in the UK, during the same moment that the Global North is reacting to the state-sanctioned murder of George Floyd. But it is not fate, because Clemency does not exist in a secluded untouchable void. Writer-director Chinonye Chukwu has crafted this film from her interrogation and exploration of a system that is very much reality, and one that the murder of George Floyd is a consequence of.
So, although Clemency is not based on a true story, it is grounded in truth. Chukwu spent four years researching CLEMENCY, she spoke with six different wardens, interviewed corrections officers, death row lawyers, Lieutenants and a Director of Corrections about their experiences working in prisons and in death row facilities: “I spoke with men currently on death row and one man who was exonerated from death row, after being incarcerated for 28 years for a crime he did not commit.”
It is this truth, that is flawlessly executed by an incredible cast led by Alfre Woodard as death row prison warden Bernadine Williams. The film opens with a botched execution and we stay with Bernadine as she prepares to execute another inmate, Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge). We become privy to all of Bernadine, a rare occurrence in cinema’s portrayal of older Black women. From calm collected and authoritative prison warden to frantic wife rushing to the workplace of her husband, to say, something, to a drunk woman, slurring her words and fumbling with her car keys, and if it did not feel so tragic, it would be funny. And then, the final minutes of the film when the camera does not falter, but she has, and we as an audience are forced, as she is, to acknowledge that her loss was not inevitable but now it has gone, she may never get it back.
Clemency does not ask or force us to decide who is good or bad, or guilty or innocent. Chukwu does not present us with clichéd or stereotypical portrayals of another incarcerated Black man about to lose his life. Instead, she presents a truth, and perhaps a question, is justice without empathy or humanity truly justice?
“The morning after Troy Davis was executed in a Georgia State prison in 2011, the sounds of the hundreds of thousands who protested against his execution kept ringing in my ears, and I couldn’t help but wonder: if so many of us struggled with what had happened to Mr. Davis, what about the people who actually had to carry out his execution?” – Chinonye Chukwu, writer and director of CLEMENCY.
A big thank you to Tomiwa Foloruso, writer, presenter and creative based in Edinburgh. Tomiwa specialises in communications and digital production and is also a project manager with the Empower Project. See her and read her here: instagram, twitter or website
112 mins | English | Drama
Director: Chinonye Chukwu Writer: Chinonye Chukwu
Cast: Alfre Woodard, Richard Schiff, Aldis Hodge
Chinonye Chukwu – Twitter: https://twitter.com/ChinonyeC
Wendell Pierce – Twitter:https://twitter.com/WendellPierce