Film Review: Clemency

Film Review: Clemency

Clemency is a powerful and unflinching look at the role of those who must carry out the death penalty:  warden and prison guards. It’s an unflinching emotional rollercoaster with incredible acting and direction.

After years of carrying out death row executions have taken a toll on prison warden Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard).  As she prepares to execute another inmate, Bernadine must confront the psychological and emotional demons her job creates, ultimately connecting her to the man she is sanctioned to kill.

Clemency is written and directed by Chinonye Chukwu. It won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. She said that the seed for this film was planted in her mind the morning after Troy Davis was executed in Georgia Prison in 2011. She spent the next four years researching and interviewing those who have to carry out executions. This hard work shows in a very tightly written script, no words are wasted.

Clemency will leave you astounded. Alfre Woodard is mesmerising throughout and gives a masterclass in acting.  The final, long scene of Clemency as she walks out of the prison will leave you speechless. There are little words or noise that punctuates this film, for this is an airless, almost wordless world, where death and hopelessness reside. The tension throughout this film is taut and at times leaves the viewer feeling claustophobic. The one thing that is missing is intimacy. As governor, Bernadine can show no mercy to anyone and that includes herself and we’re shown that by the way in which she doesn’t let her emotions come to the surface even when others seek comfort from her. It is as if she’s a pressure cooker barely keeping the lid on all the emotions underneath. Only when she gets drunk do we see her manage to speak a little of her truth, not all of it, but a little. 

Oppositive Alfre Woodard’s powerhouse performance is the equally incredible Aldis Hodge who plays the condemned man, Anthony Woods. The scene in which the warden explains what will happen to him and his reaction, of trying to commit suicide and screaming: “I say when I die”, shows the power of a good script, acting and direction.  What is noticeable in this film, is sound or lack of. There is no music, the only soundscape is either human voices or everyday sounds and it just adds to the airless world this film inhabits. 

Every character in the film is carefully drawn, they may not have many lines such as Marty (Richard Schiff), as Anthony’s lawyer, but the few lines he does have conveys the hopelessness he feels for his client and all the years he has put in defending those on death row.  Even the prison guards are shown as fully rounded humans, not brutes as is often the case in these types of films. Officer Logan can’t get the botched execution of Victor Jimenez (Alex Castillo) out of his mind. Everyone is haunted in this film. There are no easy answers and what Chinonye Chukwu avoids doing is giving any. She is attempting to show the people on the other side. What is refreshing to see is the fact that a powerful, Black woman is not shown in the way you expect. Yes, she’s a woman but also a warden and it feels authentic and honest. It is striking because we rarely get to see a Black woman portrayed so powerfully and in a position of power. This film shows why representation matters. Throughout the film, she’s the most powerful person in the room at all times. Let’s sit with that for a minute.

What’s also interesting is the use of first names. It is only when her name is used that she comes back from the abyss other than that, Bernadine is always in the role of warden. Also, the cinematography and use of colour in this film is sublime, it only heightens the emotional response to every scene: subtle yet powerful.

Clemency is a quiet, powerful film that comes together on screen and marinates in the mind long after the credits finish rolling. It will leave you haunted by the subject matter and the outstanding acting, writing and direction. More, please!

Clemency is released on Friday 17 July. It is available via Bohemia Media’s bespoke platform at and on Curzon Home Cinema.

– If viewers watch via the bespoke platform, they can donate half of the revenue to a participating cinema, charity or film collective of their choosing. 

– Independent cinemas are also able to book Clemency throughout August and September.

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