Review by Dan Skip Allen
Just as the 2020 Sundance Film Festival started, the winner of the Grand Jury Prize of last year's festival is released in theaters. It had a limited release in late December so it could be considered for awards, but it was worth the wait.
Death row inmate movies seem to be a thing lately. Following a similar release pattern, Just Mercy came out in January. Besides the thematic connection, the films are very different. Clemency is more about the indictment of the prison system as a whole. The prison system in this country is overrun so they have to have a system in place to kill violent offenders and murderers, so some states have a lethal injection system in place. This film has a lot to say about the prison system in this country and doesn't always do it with grace.
Bernadine (Alfre Woodard) is a prison warden. She has to deal with a lot in her role. Some of it can be unpleasant. Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge) is a man sentenced to death row for murder. Hodge is familiar with portraying prisoners because he was in Brian Banks earlier in 2019, in which he played a man who was unjustly sentenced to prison for a crime he didn't commit. Both Woodard and Hodge give great performances in Clemency.
Alfre Woodard has had a great career. She even was nominated for an Academy Award back in 1983 for Cross Creek. She has done quite a bit of television and movie work since then. Her entire career has prepared her for the role of Bernadine in Clemency, though. She has to deal with a lot of politics in and outside of the prison. All of this stress puts a strain on her relationship with her husband Jonathan (Wendell Pierce).
Aldis Hodge is pro at portraying prisoners by now, but he goes to another level in Clemency. He gives a performance that runs the myriad of emotions. He feels like he can't trust anybody, let alone Warden Bernadine. If Hodge was terrific in Brian Banks, he is even better in Clemency. The man he is portraying deals with so much pain that it comes out in his performance in spades.
Chinonye Chukwu is a relatively new writer-director. She puts the prison system of our country under a microscope. We live in a difficult time when there are so many prisons that are overflowing with felons. She puts a shine on such an ugly part of our country. Cinematographer Eric Branco makes the visuals look like a shiny car, even though the story is so dark and full of emotions. Even the supporting cast, Richard Shiff as Woods's lawyer, Michael O'Neill as Chaplin Kendricks, Richard Gunn as Deputy Warden Thomas Morgan, and LaMonica Garrett as Major Logan Cartwright give terrific performances in this film. Clemency is a beautiful film about an ugly subject and everyone involved gives it their all, especially Woodard and Hodge.
Clemency is now playing in theaters.