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.