In Clemency, Bernadine’s every expression, word, and gesture seem to have been choreographed to meet her profession’s unusual demands. Everything is in its place from her responses to every strand of her hair. At work, she sits at a large, orderly desk, and behind her looms a wall filled with putty-colored filing cabinets. Each cabinet contains several documents of grim pain, lost lives, a compendium of destruction and death, and a monument of tragedy.
Chinonye Chukwu creates a methodically coherent, controlled, and persuasive world for Bernadine. The harmonizing cinematography and production design strengthen the pervasive tranquility through deep shadows and little clutter make different locations look similar. As the film progresses, the scenes are blurred together to lock Bernadine in claustrophobic uniformity. Chukwu digs deep into the relationship between prisoner and warden and puts the characters into play even when they are apart. Anthony and Bernadine are prisoners of their world. Morally, spiritually, legally. This sounds more schematic and simplistic than it plays out in the film, where the scripted sins are mitigated by the vivid performance of the actors. The director adds to the complexity of Clemency by including lesser characters, such as grieving, angry relatives, and Evette, Anthony’s ex-girlfriend who creates an unexpected twist in the film.
According to Alfre Woodward, Clemency was inspired by the appeal of wardens and death row staff in 2001 in the case of Troy Davis, who was executed in Georgia. The plea was not just to save the life of the person being executed, but also that of the executioner because taking another person’s life forever changes a person. In Chukwu’s intelligent film, the toll of the death penalty affects all those involved and we can witness chaplains, lawyers, wardens, and prisoners all going through some type of PTSD.
Clemency is not your ordinary drama. It is not only interesting but also educational. The actors score an easy A on the performance, and you wouldn’t ask for anyone better. Clemency approaches the subject of the death penalty from an angle that we do not think about too often. Most of the time when we hear a mention of the death penalty, death-row convicts are the first people that come to mind. More often than not we do not consider its impacts on other parties. This is exactly what the film does. It makes you look at the bigger picture, and in doing so leaves you with many questions. Is the death penalty moral? Is it justified? Does it do more harm than good? Are there better solutions than the death penalty? While there are several arguments for the death penalty, it does more harm than good, at least according to Chukwu’s Clemency.