Winner of the Grand Jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival!

The debate surrounding America’s death penalty has raged for decades, with myriad filmmakers exploring the contentious issue. With Clemency (winner of the Grand Jury prize at Sundance), writer-director Chinonye Chukwu adds her voice, taking a measured approach which nevertheless speaks angry volumes about the abject inhumanity of this penal policy.

Poster for the death-row drama ClemencyAt its centre is an astonishing performance from Alfre Woodard as prison warden Bernadine Williams, who oversees death row inmates in a facility housing predominantly African-American men. She is proud of her career, during which she has witnessed countless executions. Yet the toll is beginning to tell in her closed-off demeanour and strained relationship with husband Jonathan (Wendell Pierce).

When Bernadine encounters mild-mannered Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge), a man sentenced to death for a murder he insists he did not commit, her faith in the system begins to fracture. Bernadine remains poised and professional, even in the face of increased media interest following a botched execution and pressure from Woods’s dogged – but also disillusioned – lawyer Marty (Richard Schiff). She is, however, clearly in emotional free-fall. She drinks too much, but never lets her personal demons come to the fore. This is a battle she is determined to fight in private.

Woodard is nothing short of mesmerizing, capturing Bernadine’s churning inner turmoil, not in hysteria or moral soliloquizing, but through her resigned expression when comforting the mother of a prisoner, her halting conversations with husband Jonathan, the raging insomnia which plagues her each night.

Chukwu and cinematographer Eric Branco capture this psychological claustrophobia by staying tight on Bernadine – an extended scene in which the camera refuses to look away as she loses herself to silent tears encapsulates Clemency’s subtle power.

An evocative score combines with immersive sound design to emphasize the hard-edged noises of the prison: the slams, the cries, the heartbeat monitors which play out a condemned man’s final moments. These grow in intensity, helping to paint a damning and unforgettable portrait of a woman caught in the machinations of a system which has no time for individuals on either side of the bars, a woman who comes to realize she is a prisoner herself.

– Nikki Baughan, The List

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