An impressive work with a familiar but always worthy theme, that of capital punishment.


Alfre Woodard


Over the years many films have been made that have been aimed at showing just how abhorrent capital punishment is and so long as the death penalty can still be applied somewhere in the world the theme will remain valid. In the past we have had notable examples in arthouse cinema ranging from the French drama Nous Sommes Tous les Assassins made by André Cayatte way back in 1952 to Kieslowski's devastating Polish feature of 1987, A Short Film about Killing. However, the mainstream has also contributed memorably to this sphere, as witness the classic British movie Yield to the Night (1956) and the American Oscar-winner Dead Man Walking (1995). Now we find a woman filmmaker, the Nigerian-American Chinonye Chukwu, taking up this same issue in her second feature, Clemency, and what is more she is the writer in addition to being the director.


In point of fact, this new piece is not the first feature on the subject to reach us from America this year since early in 2020 we saw Destin Daniel Cretton's Just Mercy. That film was well meant and very well acted but, while some critics admired it, I felt that its impact was seriously weakened by the way in which it self-consciously played on the emotions of its audience. Showing much better judgment, Chukwu for the most part plays things down and wisely limits the use of background music. The result is a film which, avoiding melodrama, starkly brings out the cost to all concerned by showing the situation of a prisoner in an American jail, Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge), who, after being involved in the killing of a policeman, has been on death row for fifteen years. A pre-credit sequence featuring the execution of another prisoner which has gone awry brings home to us vividly what awaits Woods if, consequent on losing his appeal, the sentence on this man who claims to be innocent is now carried out. In fact, he could yet be saved by an act of clemency on the part of the governor, but the chances of this happening are not high.


What adds to the power of Clemency is the fact that the strain imposed on the prison warden in this situation is equally central and in this case the warden is a black woman, Bernadine Williams played by Alfre Woodard who was also an executive producer here. Woods too is black and it is good to see these players not being limited by their ethnicity and doing well in roles in which the colour of their skin is irrelevant to the drama. There is also a good portrait of Woods's veteran white lawyer (Richard Schiff), but the screenplay is not quite so persuasive when it comes to showing how the pressure of Bernadine's work is threatening to undermine her marriage (this is no fault of Wendell Pierce well cast in the role of her husband). That is a minor weakness but what really prevents the film from being a masterpiece is the handling of its climactic scene. Generally speaking, Chukwu's direction even if slightly studied at times is very able, but what is in effect a stylised use of a long held close-up near the end is so self-conscious that it cuts across the quiet realism of the piece. Furthermore, the restraint which has worked so well for the film is rather lost at this late stage. Nevertheless, Clemency, a finely acted picture, really does make its mark and it deserves a wide audience.




Cast: Alfre Woodard, Richard Schiff, Aldis Hodge, Wendell Pierce, Michael O'Neill, Danielle Brooks, LaMonica Garrett, Richard Gunn, Alex Castillo, Vernee Watson, Dennis Hoskins, Alma Martinez.


Dir Chinonye Chukwu, Pro Timur Bekbosunov, Julian Cautherley, Bronwyn Cornelius and Peter Wong, Screenplay Chinonye Chukwu, Ph Eric Branco, Pro Des Margaux Rust, Ed Phyllis Housen, Music Kathryn Bostic, Costumes Suzanne Barnes.


ACE Pictures Entertainment/Bronwyn Cornelius Productions/Big Indie Pictures-Bohemia Media/Modern Films.
112 mins. USA. 2019. Rel: 17 July 2020. Available on Curzon Home Cinema. Cert. 15.