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Clemency: The Toll Capital Punishment Takes

Dick Price & Sharon Kyle: Clemency, the compelling new film by writer-director Chinonye Chukwu, focuses on the oft-overlooked effect the death penalty has on the people involved in carrying it out.

Alfre Woodard

Examinations of America’s use of capital punishment often focus on its gross disparities. For example, the ACLU has reported that people of color are far more likely to be executed than whites. And over the past few decades, a body of evidence reveals that the color of the victim, more often than not, is a determinant in death penalty cases.

Some attention also currently goes the fine work The Innocence Project, Death Penalty Focus, Amenesty Internation, the ACLU, and similar organizations are doing to end capital punishment and free wrongly convicted death row inmates.

Clemency, the compelling new film by writer-director Chinonye Chukwu, focuses on the oft-overlooked effect the death penalty has on the people involved in carrying it out.

Clemency, the compelling new film by writer-director Chinonye Chukwu, takes a different tack, focusing instead on the oft-overlooked effect the death penalty has on the people involved in carrying it out, from the prison guards who work with the condemned prisoners for years to the condemned men themselves, from the death penalty attorneys who mount mostly hopeless appeals to family members of both those soon to be executed and their victims.

Chukwu spent four years researching her topic, by interviewing wardens—especially African American women wardens working in states where the death penalty is practiced—and by serving as a volunteer on a long-term clemency project in Ohio. Staunchly opposed to the death penalty herself, her goal in this film was to put a human face on people who might be easy to stereotype and dismiss, thereby bringing us to a deeper understanding of what a cruel practice it is.

As the easiest face to dismiss, Alfre Woodard plays warden Bernadine Williams, who spends the film preparing to oversee her twelfth execution by lethal injection. We watch as she struggles mightily with her growing sense of unease, especially when the grotesque execution of a Latino man that opens the story goes so terribly wrong.

In that eleventh execution, the medic needs four tries to find a vein that will serve. The condemned man’s sobbing mother must watch her convulsing son until the warden pulls the drape on the witnesses. Even the warden and her attending prison staff are stunned by the horrific scene played out on screen in such shocking detail.

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Clemency then follows Warden Williams as she works to prevent the next execution from again going so terribly off the tracks. Next up is a convicted cop killer played by Aldis Hodge, a young black man who may or may not have committed the crime in a teenage robbery gone wrong.

Brilliantly portrayed by Woodard, the warden fights to suppress any sense of empathy or compassion she might feel for the men whose lives she is in charge of ending.

She comforts herself in sticking rigidly to the rules, denying an easily granted request to have the victim’s son attend the execution in an effort to obtain “closure”—a dubious concept if ever there was one.

She prides herself in treating the men under her watch with dignity and respect, right up to the end—an end that nonetheless has a needle jabbing into one vein or another.

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She tells herself that no matter what she does, the result will be the same—which is doubtlessly true as someone else would take her place should she step aside, as her husband, played adroitly by Wendell Pierce, urges her to do.

And she clings to the notion that her professional responsibilities must take precedence over any compassionate concerns that might bubble up from within.

But blind obedience to rules and professional ethics, a resort to fatalism, calls to duty, and her appeals to a hollow humanity—none of that washes as her life comes ever so steadily apart. You can’t do what she does and pretend to be in any sense merciful.

Falling down drunk in public leads to long, sleepless nights alone on the couch comforted by a bottle and late-night game show reruns. Her fraying marriage drives her husband out of the house. More than anything, the struggle plays out on Woodard’s exquisitely expressive face and in the heavy-footed way she walks down the prison’s ugly institutional halls.

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Largely due to DNA evidence, we now know that far too many on death row were wrongly convicted. As of November 8, 2019, there have been 166 exonerations of prisoners on death row in the United States since 1973, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. For whatever difference it might make, some were even exonerated posthumously—like 14-year-old George Stinney, who went to the electric chair in 1944.

By film’s end, you’d like to think this warden is done executing people. Just as you’d like to think that we Californians would reverse ourselves and once again outlaw capital punishment.

You’d like to think the other 30 states where capital punishment is at least the law of the land, even if it’s not currently practiced, would also outlaw the barbaric practice.

You’d like to think.

This masterful movie and its stirring portrayals deserve a watching—and not just by those of us who are already convinced state-sponsored murder has no place in a just and compassionate society.

dick and sharon

Clemency currently plays at the Landmark, 10840 West Pico, Los Angeles, and the AMC Burbank 16, 125 E Palm Avenue, Burbank.

Dick Price & Sharon Kyle