' ' Cinema Romantico: Clemency

Thursday, February 20, 2020


Alfre Woodard might be the best movie drunk I’ve ever seen. I understand that might be a strange place to start with “Clemency”, writer/director Chinonye Chukwu’s plaint against capital punishment, but Woodard’s occasional lapses into intoxication are a window into everything else. She is a prison warden, Bernadine Williams, who begins the film overseeing a death by lethal injection that goes horribly wrong. These moments encapsulate how Woodard mostly plays the part, someone who has been at this a long, long time and whose stoicism is not so much a hardened nature but a mask, one rigidly affixed to her face, so rigidly affixed that it hardly ever comes off, rarely even at home in scenes of would-be domestic bliss. No, the only time it does is when she’s drinking, like an early scene with her deputy warden, and which are not theatrical, Tennessee Williams-ish bouts of boozing but just a subtle variation in her character, which Woodard evinces with just the right physical variations, tipsy physicality and slurring. Here, the interminable pent-up aggravation melts.

Everything she otherwise carries with her does not so much leave Bernadine imprisoned in her own mind, as a metaphor might go, but numb to life. Her first scene at home is in bed with her husband, Jonathan (Wendell Pierce), and ends by them calling it off, as if too much human touch is too much to take, as she retreats, downstairs, zonking out to late night TV, the modern-day living dead. She’s an empty shell, as Jonathan says, evidence of their dialogue’s tendency toward cliché, though Woodard’s tightly controlled performance exudes that sentiment all on its own, her frequently big, searching eyes suggesting a desperation for but impotence toward communication. Much later, when the Prison Chaplain (Michael O’Neill) tells Bernadine about his own emotional struggles with the job, Woodard incredibly has Bernadine receive these words like he, the Chaplain, is giving confession rather than vice-versa.

The one scene in which we see Jonathan, a teacher, in his classroom feels more like him unloading his own burden than instructing his students, reading from Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” – “I am invisible, understand, because people refuse to see me.” He’s talking about himself, certainly, but this moment is also spiritually connected to “Clemency’s” other major character, Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge), on death row for killing a police officer when he was a teenager. Chukwu might make his notion of being a caged bird too explicit, not so much in the way he circles a cage during brief time outdoors as in the drawings covering his cell, but she is less overly emphatic in presenting the idea that the convict, like the warden, is black, letting this similarity speak for itself. If typical movies like this put a white person in position of power, their identical skin color renders Bernadine’s crisis that much deeper and damning, as if she is in league with the very people Ellison renounces. What’s more, the lawyer (Richard Schiff) working on behalf of Anthony is white, and his recurring conversations with Bernadine are played in weary tones, two people tired of this irreconcilable dance.

That he works so hard for his client is tied to the notion that Anthony might well be innocent, waiting for possible clemency from the Governor. This never becomes the crux, like it might in a movie about a crusading lawyer, but it can sometimes feel antithetical to the actual overriding point. True, it highlights a flaw in the death penalty system, where innocent people can be written off, but the pervasive notion of his innocence simultaneously saps the intrinsic idea that capital punishment is, inherently, at the root, wrong. And while Hodge’s performance is sometimes heartbreaking, like a late scene with a woman from his past where he realizes even if he were to be granted clemency how so much of his life is already taken from him, also rarely seems to suggest his character might have done what he supposedly did, which makes it less powerful than, say, Sean Penn’s turn in “Dead Man Walking”, where you were asked to consider redemption for someone ostensibly unworthy of it.

In the end, though, “Clemency”, while never exactly taking anything away from Anthony’s tragic ending, makes it clear that the conclusion is more about Bernadine, the final execution almost entirely recounted in a close-up of her rather than various cuts of the execution itself. It’s not just the close-up, though, and how Bernadine’s tear echoes a tear Anthony sheds earlier, and it’s not even Bernadine’s long walk down a corridor afterwards as it is how the corridor is lit, the movie’s omnipresent gunmetal greys giving way to an unfamiliar yellow-orange, making it appear as if the institutional rot is eating her alive.

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