Alfre Woodward as Bernadine’s Character

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.…

Cinematography – How the Film “Clemency” became a Masterpiece

Above everything else, The film is a showcase of talented actors, backed by a cinematographer who understands the beauty and depths of black skin tones, and a director with fine-tuned emotional intelligence. Aldis Hodge provides a splendid performance as Anthony. He is quiet in the presence of prison staff, and barely looks at Bernadine when she enquires what he would like to have for his last meal. However, his stoic facade has some fractures. When Anthony tries to kill himself by pummeling his head against the wall in his cell, he constantly exclaims that he wants to die. He screams loudly when Chaplain Hendricks tries to read the bible for him. When Jonathan discovers that he has a child with his high-school sweetheart Evette, he starts to think of living again. The scene is stitched with heartbreak as he moves from joy to yearning and anger when Evette refuses to offer him an apology for her decision to protect their son. Although she does not apologize, she comforts him by telling him how much he is loved and how people are fighting for him. As Evette puts it, when she dies, only a few people will remember her, but when Jonathan dies, his legacy will live on. But how soothing is a legacy in the face of an unjust death?

Undoubtedly, the crown jewel of the film is Alfre Woodward. Bernadine has an abstruse arc that is braced by unending questions. The questions are not in dialogue form but are prevalent in her perceptible changes in posture and complicated body movements which reveal the contradiction beneath her visage. Towards the end of the film, a nearly 30-minute shot is concentrated on Woodward’s face, with the heart monitor’s fading beep soundtracking tears as they cascade down her face. Her twitches and muscle jerks are magnificent: the hollowed gaze, the tilt of her head, the bend of her bow. In Clemency, Woodward is a master of her character and is in full command making the movie all the more interesting.

Woodward’s performance is a masterpiece because her demeanor –her rhythm of breathing, voice modulation, stoicism, and stance — reveals more about the character’s journey than any form of dialogue could. That the film approaches the topic of state execution from a black female death-row warden’s perspective is highly remarkable, refusing to fall to several stereotypes, and making Bernadine’s struggles more complex, both political and personal. It takes great skill to demonstrate how Bernadine got to this point and why she is in conflict.

Woodward’s performance incrementally gains astonishing momentum in subtle inflections and decisions that may never occur if you are actorly choices. When she first patrols the prison, we see a woman in full control, a person whose casual power is prevalent in every gesture, and a person whose absolute authority has determined he gaits rhythm put an easy-going swing in her arms and relaxed her posture. Bernadine is undone by the same power. Woodward brilliantly and unapologetically tears down the tragic figure piece by piece, dismantling the false front and the institution previously upheld by Woodward.

Post written by Marcus Pierce, former editor at Credit Glory and part time entertainment writer.

Behind the Strong Façade of Warden Williams

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.…