Because "Clemency" saw limited release in 2019 (it debuted at the Sundance Film Festival and saw a small theatrical run in late December), it's considered a 2019 movie according to the award circuit. Had it come out a bit earlier, and had more eyeballs witnessed this shocking (no pun intended) story and the electric (pun intended), emotionally-raw performance by Alfre Woodard, there is NO QUESTION that she would be right in the thick of the Oscar mix.
The opening 15 minutes of "Clemency" details what is maybe the most powerful,
stunning scene put to film all year long. Warden Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard) is overseeing a man on Death Row being put to death. The scene spares no details, and the effectiveness - and the fact that it almost makes you turn away from the screen - sets the stage for the contemplative and intellectually-enlightening drama that is to come.
The brilliance of it, a film written and directed by Nigerian-American female director Chinonye Chukwu, is that this is not a "wordy" debate. The struggle plays out internally on the face of Woodard and the rest of this terrific supporting cast (with Aldis Hodge and Wendell Pierce as stand-outs). Williams struggles with the moral position that her job puts her in, and while we sympathize with those that are about to have their lives taken from them via taxpayer money, the real draw is what will happen to this woman who has been beyond-shattered, and who can't undo the things that she has taken part in.
There have been several movies made about Death Row, about the broken social and criminal justice system in America and about this country's prison culture. But "Clemency" humanizes these topics in a way that few movies have. When debating this issues on a larger scale, it's very easy to overlook the real lives that are at stake...not just the criminals - some wrongly accused and others who maybe deserve their fates - but the citizens that are tasked to perform these truly barbaric rituals. And the parents, the mothers, the families that are affected.
In that opening scene, Williams must coldly deliver news to a grieving mother that her son is going to be executed, that he was not granted clemency from the state. Imagine having to detach yourself emotionally from the mother, whom clearly isn't the one who committed the crime but who will undoubtedly pay for it for the rest of her life just the same. Then imagine trying to go home and be with your family, only to return to "work" the next day and have to systematically end more lives, all in the name of "justice."
Woodard gives an absolutely breath-taking, internalized performance that is among the best that you'll see this or any year. And despite being overlooked during the past awards season, she deserves recognition somehow, someway.
When it comes to looking at a controversial subject through an unrelenting lens, "Clemency" shows no mercy.
Run Time: 1 hour 52 minutes.
Starring: Alfre Woodard, Aldis Hodge, Richard Schiff, Wendell Pierce, LaMonica Garrett.
Written and Directed by Chinonye Chukwu ("alaskaLand").
"Clemency" opens in theaters on Friday, February 7th, 2020.
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