[TIFF Review] ‘CLEMENCY’ a sobering​, satisfying prison drama

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James Clay // Film Critic

CLEMENCY

Rated R, 109 minutes.
Director: Chinonye Chukwu
Cast: Alfrie Woodard, Aldis Hodge, Danielle Brooks and Wendell Pierce

TORONTO – Chinoye Chukwu’s film CLEMENCY represents the most sobering aspects of the criminal justice system. Taking place largely inside the walls of an unknown prison’s death row unit, a reluctant warden named Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard) comes to terms with her place within this labyrinthian moral conundrum. Not exactly crowd-pleasing entertainment, but Woodard and Chukwu’s collaboration resonates with the film’s use of tension.

This prison is a place where loneliness and isolation aren’t just affecting the inmates. Chukwu’s directing style lobs out scenes of silence, with a contemplative style that asks the audience to deal with a horrible setting. This is a film that deserves attention as it looks to redefine the definition of justice in the American judicial system while advocating and challenging the act of capital punishment altogether.

At home, Bernadine’s husband, Jonathan (Wendell Pierce), is contemplating retirement. His and Bernadine’s marriage is on the rocks, and Jonathan is just attempting a last-ditch effort to get close to his wife. Bernadine’s mind is elsewhere as she’s attending to a death row inmate and accused cop killer Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge), who’s on his last set of appeals before his lethal injection. Chukwu’s film is earnest in its intentions to show both characters in unflattering light without passing judgment.

Woodard gives a restrained performance that’s assured and one of the best roles she’s had in her career. It’s a shame she isn’t given material this appealing regularly. What I love about roles like this is the duality actors like Woodard can bring to the screen without saying much. Pierce, who has been an unsung supporting actor for years now, gives such a warm performance that brings the only glimmer of hope in the entire film. Seeing this couple’s lame effort to be romantic is heart-wrenching.

This is a film that focuses on issues of moral high ground as well as character development. As Bernadine and Anthony spend more time together, very little is spoken for long stretches of their screen time. However, as distant CLEMENCY may seem to be, it’s depicting a hard truth in American society. It’s done so with care and precision that many filmmakers haven’t attempted (or aren’t willing to attempt). Not much is said about Wood’s background; the audience is given a chance to make their own assumptions on what they think his fate should be. Hodge’s confidence as an actor has become more and more pronounced. His standout supporting role in STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON got him on the map back in 2016, but he has developed a precision to his performance that has become palpable. 

CLEMENCY is a film that revels in a pretty depraved setting where dreams are crushed, and no laughter ever exists. Prison movies aren’t here to put smiles on faces, and Chukwu’s film teeters into the realm of shocking at times. Her skills as a director are felt here with a film that casts a long dark shadow of doubt for the future and guilt for the present. 

Grade: B

CLEMENCY screened at the Toronto International Film Festival. Encore screenings will be held on September 13, 15 and 15. Visit tiff.net for further information. NEON will release the film will release on December 27.