4th October 2019 3.00pm at
11th October 2019 8.30pm at ICA Cinema
Death row is a dark place for any inmate and Chinonye Chukwu’s Clemency bars no holds when letting the audience know this fact, grabbing the bull by the horns and thrusting it headfirst into the viewers’ conscience. Focusing on the personal and working life of Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard), a prison Warden who over the course of her tenure has found herself involved in the executions of 12 inmates sentenced to death, the picture depicts how her position has drained and damaged her emotionally as well as marring her relationship with her husband Jonathan (Wendell Pierce). When an execution goes wrong, Warden Williams finds her perspective of these inmates begin to shift and as Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge) is awaiting his final day for a crime he claims not to have committed, she finds her inner morality pulled viciously into a conflict between her work responsibilities and what is right.
The harsh realities of life for those behind the cold iron bars and those who work on the other side could not be more prevalent in this film, both for Williams and Woods, whose integrity melts away as they begin to lose control of their respected scenarios. As a man awaiting his execution – a character so masterfully written by Chukwu –Hodge delivers a performance that is painfully gut-wrenching to watch, leaving the audience praying that the Governor may, even at the last minute, grant clemency for this man.
Among the other exceptional performances is, of course, that of Woodard, who commands the screen, demonstrating her immense versatility as an actor as Bernadine attempts to hold onto the morsels of her ordinary life that are slipping away into the sleepless darkness induced by her work. Pierce adds an element of realism to the script as the devoted yet distanced husband, representing the life that Bernadine could have been living had her work not shrouded her every living moment in a haze of regret.
An immense amount of thought has evidently gone into this feature, with a greater symbolic meaning woven brilliantly between the minimal dialogue, the silence suffocating Bernadine, Woods and the audience to the extent that you feel your own heart rate increase with every beep of the cardiac monitor. The film is set almost entirely inside the prison, except for the odd home scene and trip to the bar, locking the viewer inside the walls along with the death row inmate, leaving them breathing the same tainted air as the fractured warden. An uncomfortable concept that is so perfectly delivered.
At Sundance Film Festival 2019, director Chukwu became the first black woman to be awarded the US Dramatic Grand Jury Prize following Clemency’s prior nomination, and rightly so. The picture demands the attention of the audience from start to finish; and as we see our main characters reach the inevitable conclusion, we ourselves begin to truly appreciate what we really have if the justice system hasn’t taken it all away.
Clemency does not have a UK release date yet.
Read more reviews and interviews from our London Film Festival 2019 coverage here.
For further information about the festival visit the official BFI website here.