“Clemency,” written and directed by Chinonye Chukwu, examines the life of a prison warden named Bernadine Williams as she is preparing for another execution. The premise met my expectations, however “Clemency” fell short in some areas.
Without question, the best part of the film had to be Aldis Hodge’s performance as Anthony Woods. He plays a prisoner fighting for clemency on death row who is broken by the process of being on death row. Hodge’s emotional range is diverse and displays the strife of being on death row. Alfre Woodward’s performance as Warden Williams, however, is the opposite of Hodge’s. For 75% of the movie, she is icy and unlikable. It is understandable that being a prison warden isn’t the warmest position in the world, but Woodward’s character progression comes toward the film’s climax instead of being progressively implemented throughout.
Chukwu’s script also feels underdeveloped in certain scenes. When the warden and her husband try to work out their failing marriage, it comes off as hollow and wooden. The chemistry between Woodward and Wendell Pierce is undercooked and felt out of place.
The lighting matches the overall tone of the film. It is lowkey and dimly lit. The color palette is devoid of any life and resembles the hardships of being on death row. “Clemency” is not a visually complicated film and the visuals are not game changing. They do, however, support the film’s vision of creating an uncomfortable environment. The score from Kathryn Bostic is eerie enough to unsettle the audience members, but mellow enough where it doesn’t feel like a horror movie.
For a film that won the Sundance Film Festival’s Grand Jury Prize, it does not match up to previous winners. “Clemency” wasn’t even the best film to premier at that year’s festival. “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” which also premiered at Sundance in 2019, was a masterful look at gentrification and family in San Francisco. There was also “The Farewell,” which was more emotionally captivating and rich than “Clemency.” Even “Brittany Runs a Marathon” felt like a more deserving film for the Grand Jury Prize and that film is not a masterpiece.
I appreciate the effort Chukwu put toward making a drama about death row. The strongest parts of the film take place in the prison when Hodge is on-screen. Where “Clemency” loses me is when it tries to tell a story outside of the prison and examine the life of the warden. Her character development toward the last 10 minutes of the film is great, but it would have felt more rewarding if Chukwu made Warden Williams more likable throughout the movie.
If you are interested in checking out a better film about prison, “Crown Heights” is a must-watch. It is not about death row, but director Matt Ruskin created what Chukwu attempted to: A hopeless feeling of dread that doesn’t stop even once the credits start rolling.
Ian Ward is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org