‘Clemency’ brings light to the dark reality of death row

Thursday, February 13, 2020 - 3:16pm

NOSELL

Neon

The opening scene of “Clemency” is an execution. A group of people gather around a prisoner as a medical worker places the IV into his veins that will deliver fatal drugs to his system. The room’s atmosphere is solemn and emotionless, but there is also a sense of urgency, a need to get it over with. The ticking of the clock is intertwined with the beeping heart monitor as the people standing around the prisoner wait for his death to be official.

This is the reality of Warden Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard, “Miss Evers’ Boys”), who oversees the executions of prisoners on death row. Williams has thrown herself into a routine when it comes to carrying out the death penalty to keep herself detached: using clinical terms like “procedure” to refer to executions, avoiding direct connections with inmates and not making any exceptions when it comes to protocol. Yet, when the opening execution does not go as planned, the warden’s routine is shaken, forcing her to confront the reality of her profession. Writer and director Chinonye Chukwu (“Alaska-land”) brings us this dark drama not just to tell us a sad story, but to give us a window into a reality that is present today, a glimpse into the feelings of helplessness that percolate within the people who carry out this process.

The audience is given little time to recover from the first execution before we move on to another one — that of Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge, “Straight Outta Compton”), a prisoner on death row who was convicted of murdering a police officer. Despite media attention, the ambiguity surrounding his crime and the tireless efforts of his defense lawyer, Marty Lumetta (Richard Schiff, “The West Wing”), Woods’s execution seems inevitable. The only hope he can cling to is a chance for clemency — pardoning a criminal of capital punishment — from the governor.

While the pacing is erratic at times, its somewhat lengthy quality feels true to life, as the legal process is often slow and arduous. As the lingering emotional effects of these executions impact everyone in the prison, characters have different responses. Woods shuts down, becoming despondent over his impending death. Lumetta, despite many years as an attorney, plans to retire after Woods’s case, unable to find hope in other people’s decisions and inevitably watch another client die. Williams’s husband, Jonathan (Wendell Pierce, “Selma”), struggles to deal with his wife’s quiet despair as she becomes a shell of herself, her mental health becoming paper-thin over time. While off-duty, Warden Williams deals with her internal struggle by drinking excessively and sinking into herself, kept up at night by nightmares. But as soon as she returns to the prison, she resumes her impassive front, distress seen only through the small breaks in her façade: a twitch of the lip, an unfocused gaze, or the hint of a bitter tone in her words.

As the finale looms, the scenes become eerily similar to the beginning. Williams stares at the lethal injection table as if directly facing her demons. The lines between the two scenes are direct parallels, as they talk to witnesses for the execution and wait for the possibility of clemency from the governor. It is a cycle that the Warden has been stuck in, a cycle that begins again after every death penalty that is carried out. But this time around, the implications have changed, and Williams is emotionally unable to remain detached.

In the middle of the film, as Warden Williams talks to Lumetta about Woods’s case, she balks at his question of how she is able to do her job like this. “You’re trying to play good guys and bad guys, and I’m one of the bad guys,” she says bitterly. The truth is that the situation cannot be split into a clear dichotomy. This story isn’t about good guys or bad guys winning in the end. “Clemency” stands to remind us that in executions, when a life is taken, no one wins.