Chinonye Chukwu’s Clemency is an unflinchingly honest portrayal of the process of a modern day execution. Clemency is one of the best acquisition titles at TIFF19.
Chinonye Chukwu’s Clemency, a harrowing death-row drama, won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize. At my TIFF press screenings, there were several walkouts — not for lack of quality, I’d guess, but because of how brutally hard it is to watch. The film begins with Alfre Woodard’s Bernadine Williams, a death-row prison warden, on the day of her eleventh execution. In uncomfortable detail, Chukwu presents the process of a modern day execution: the torturous waiting, the bureaucracy, strapping the prisoner down, finding a working vein, and everything that can go wrong in the process.
Woodard is excellent as Bernadine, and the film is primarily focused on the psychological effects of working her job: she’s a depressed insomniac who pushes away her loving husband and often drinks too much. She’s been doing her job for decades, and it’s evident that she’s very good at it: Bernadine follows protocol to a T, and she’s careful not to let sympathy for her prisoners get the better of her. She believes she treats them with respect, within the boundaries of what her job requires, but she’s still very much part of a system that oppresses them.
The film reckons with how people in power are enabled by laws and institutions to make choices they might otherwise deem immoral. Bernadine never once fights against the justice system, unlike the lawyer played by Richard Schiff who campaigns valiantly for his client, or the capital punishment protestors whom Chukwu ensures are always faintly heard in the sound mix whenever Bernadine is in her office. Yet Bernadine constantly avoids questions of morality by hiding behind the law, stating the facts calmly and matter-of-factly to whomever is emotionally protesting her actions.
Clemency is still seeking distribution in the UK and Canada.
Screens 9/13 at 9:30 p.m. (Roy Thomson Hall); 9/14 at 9:15 a.m. (Scotiabank); and 9/15 at 4:00 p.m. (Scotiabank). Tickets here.