Movie Review: Alfre Woodard’s turn in “Clemency” is Oscar-worthy

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In her forty years on the screen, nobody has been better at “making it real” than Alfre Woodard. 

So don’t drop in on “Clemency” expecting histrionics. She plays a prison warden at a penitentiary with a crowded Death Row, and a busy execution schedule. And Bernadine Williams knows she’s got to keep her game face on.

Bernadine is sublimating the media and protesters outside her gate stress, the agonizing moral dilemma of this work and the politics of her job. Woodard gets everything we need to know about her across in just her gaze, her eyes.

In Woodard’s stillness is a singularly great performance from a career decorated with them.

We meet her on one of those execution days, maintaining professionalism, not giving away much in the way of bother at the “What do we want?” “RESPECT FOR LIFE!” “When do we want it?” “Here and NOW!” shouts outside. Bernadine maintains her decorum with the mother of the condemned.

“Did they stop it? Have you heard anything?”

She’s in the death chamber for the lethal injection. And she never lets those with the grim task of witnessing the execution see her sweat — even when the procedure goes wrong.

“I could try his foot,” the tech says, searching for a vein that will take the needle. “We could try his femoral artery.”

“Do it.” 

She keeps the media at bay, is rigid about protocol and process. She may be a functionary, a cog in the machine following orders, always professional, never offering an opinion or showing signs of conscience.

But Bernadine can’t sleep. She’s drifted away from her still-trying husband (Wendell Pierce). She’s drinking at a local bar, right to the edge of sloppy drunk.

And there is no break in sight. Here comes the next condemned man. There were problems with Tony’s (Aldis Hodge) conviction, appeals worth hearing. If ever there was a case for clemency, his activist lawyer (Richard Schiff, perfectly cast) says this is it.

But the lawyer has little hope. The politics of the death penalty in red state America make it as untouchable as Social Security. The idea, he grouses, is to “kill them as under the radar as you can.” 

Writer-director Chinonye Chukwu (“alaskaLand” is her other feature credit) doesn’t have an emotionally wrenching story of the “Dead Man Walking” variety to tell here. She may not even have the most emotional Death Row story of this winter (“Just Mercy” is due out shortly).

But she loses herself on the details and lets her Best Actress to Never Win an Oscar star walk us through them.  Woodard’s Bernadine knows her lines, her “when it’s time for the procedure” interview with the condemned. She has the long names of the drug combo that is supposed to numb and then kill the inmate memorized.

The fireworks at home are muted, insensate. She cannot lose her temper. Not any more. Her debate with the retiring activist lawyer is measured, political and self-preserving.

“You want to play this ‘good guys/bad guys.'” She knows, to him, “I’m one of the bad guys.”

“Clemency” has just enough debate about the morality of the death penalty, just enough compassion for the condemned and pays enough notice to the family of the crime victim to fit within the genre whose conventions it leans on. It won’t change anybody’s mind, and probably won’t play at all in the states where revenge killing by the state is most popular.

But Woodard lifts it, suggests the human cost, the humanity one has to dull to endure this process, time and again. Her performance is reason enough to seek out “Clemency,” and make you realize that it’s not just the condemned who need it.

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MPAA Rating:  R for some disturbing material, and language.

Cast: Alfre Woodard, Aldis Hodge, Wendell Pierce, and Stephen Schiff

Credits: Written and directed by Chinonye Chukwu. A Neon release.

Running time: 1:53

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