wed 28/10/2020

Clemency review - devastating death row drama | reviews, news & interviews

Clemency review - devastating death row drama

Clemency review - devastating death row drama

Alfre Woodard gives a powerhouse performance as a death row prison warden

“All we want is to be seen and heard,” explains a lawyer to a death row inmate, paraphrasing a line from Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man, from which Chinonye Chukwu’s new film Clemency takes inspiration.

“All we want is to be seen and heard,” explains a lawyer to a death row inmate, paraphrasing a line from Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man, from which Chinonye Chukwu’s new film Clemency takes inspiration.

Chukwu’s film, like Ellison’s novel, explores the injustices faced by African Americans in the USA’s penal system. That reality is made all the sharper by the fact there are five decades that separate the novel from the film. In the wake of George Floyd’s death and the surge of Black Lives Matter protests around the world, the injustices that challenge us in Chukwu’s film cut deeper still.

Here we have a raw, unforgiving film, that opens on a botched execution watched over by death row prison warden, Bernadine (Alfre Woodard, pictured above), who sees her juniors struggle to find the right vein to administer a lethal injection. It’s disturbing to watch, confronting us with the realities of modern execution. Today’s methods might be more clinical than the medieval axe, but are no less barbaric.  Aldis Hodge as death row inmate Anthony WoodsBernadine must carry on, but her duty to her profession is weighing heavy on her shoulders. Her marriage to teacher Jonathan (Wendell Pierce) is in tatters. Her only solace is a dive bar where she retreats after days of batting away appeals from lawyers for a stay of execution. One such lawyer is Marty (Richard Schiff), an equally weary professional who has made his final case an appeal for his client Anthony Wood (Aldis Hodge), who has been on death row for the past 15 years.

Chukwu keeps the drama intimate. The set up is a simple two-hander with Woodard and Hodge’s performances worthy of every accolade going.

The story isn’t particularly focused on whether Wood will receive clemency - if you want a more optimistic story on similar subject matter then turn to Just Mercy starring Michael B. Jordan. Instead, it examines the emotional arc of both Wood, who must come to terms with the injustice of his fate, and Bernadine, as we question whether she can endure ending the lives of those in her charge for a moment longer.

Clemency is a brutal watch, it’s impossible to pretend otherwise. But it’s not ‘worthy’. This an unforgiving drama about the reality of a society that still believes in the death sentence. In the final moments of the film, a priest turns to Wood, saying it’s impossible to escape God’s love. Perhaps, but in a society that upholds the death penalty it’s hard to see anything resembling love, just a great deal of pain and a sharp reminder that over 2,500 Americans, the majority of them BAME, are presently sitting on death-row, hoping that a corrupt system will grant them life.

@JosephDAWalsh 

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