In director-writer Chinonye Chukwu’s movie Clemency, the face of Alfre Woodward is something of a puzzle. The movie starts and ends with the contours of her image and the story they narrate. As the film opens, when we first get acquainted with Warden Bernadine Williams, her visage is firm, as if she is preparing herself for the inevitable: a death row prison execution. Chinonye Chukwu constantly holds steadily on Alfre Woodward to build complexity, build curiosity, and flesh out the emotional terrain in the movie. Warden Bernadine Williams flinches when Thomas Morgan, the deputy warden volunteers to help officers get ready by role-playing the execution. Observe the shock in Warden Bernadine Williams’ eyes and the downturn of her lips when she discovers Jonathan’s (her husband’s) romantic prelude during their anniversary is a plan to make her consider retiring. Indulge in the varying expressions that are characteristic of a night out with Thomas as she hopes to get some reprieve from the darkness constantly shadowing her life.
Warden Bernadine Williams is haunted by a botched execution and another of Anthony Woods, a man put behind bars for the murder of a cop during a violent robbery, which we come to learn about through radio announcements and blunt TV segments, is still in doubt. In the film, Woodward plays the role of a guarded woman (Warden Bernadine Williams), who has an adamant sense of removal. Similar to the story of Clemency, Warden Bernadine Williams deliberately avoids onlookers. This isn’t a movie that offers straightforward prescriptions. During the movie, the audience is forced to catalog the shifting physicality and mood of the characters in order to comprehend the saga’s truth.
During Jonathan and Bernadine’s anniversary dinner, Jonathan talks about the sacrifices he has made to ensure the success of their marriage. Although he does not go into detail about the sacrifices he has had to make, we know that their burden heavily weighs on his relationship with his wife, and she is aware of the implications of her work. She constantly gets nightmares of being in the execution room on the gurney. She would rather spend her evenings watching late-night TV on the couch than with Jonathan. One evening Jonathan tells her that he sees her at night and he knows she doesn’t want to live in fragments anymore. Jonathan knows that Bernadine wants to be whole, even if this does not necessarily mean being with him. At first, Bernadine does not respond with words but instead with a shifting visage of understanding and yearning and the prickly discovery that Jonathan has seen her.
On Clemency, the death penalty’s political dimension isn’t exactly what catches the attention of viewers. It is how they are refracted through the lives of Bernadine and Jonathan, who communicate untold anger and sorrow in microcosm. It can be said that Clemency critiques the death penalty and how it impacts people’s lives. In the film, Richard Schiff, a tenderhearted lawyer, questions how Bernadine could live with herself knowing that she has played a role in the execution of death-row convicts. Can such a barbaric act of vengeance be considered justice? As the noise of people protesting outside the prison walls reaches the prison halls, Bernadine speaks with unwavering confidence but her face demonstrates disbelief in what she is saying.