[It’s been a while, folks, but she’s back – an old school film review from The Bechdel Bitch is here, in partnership with Bird’s Eye View’s Reclaim the Frame. You can find out more about them at the end of the review – in the meantime, enjoy!]
Clemency, the second feature film from Chinonye Chukwu is an excrutiating look at the many and varied consequences of the death penalty – with no holds barred.
From the very first scene of this agonising slow-burner, before the title card even shows on screen, Clemency earns its place as the rightful winner of the US Dramatic Grand Jury Prize at Sundance last year – making it the first film by a Black female director to win the award. Chukwu spent four years researching for the script, speaking to wardens and prisoners alike, and this dedication pays off in one of the most human depictions of prison life, and the most utterly gut-wrenching indictment of a broken system.
Years of carrying out death row executions have taken a toll on prison warden, Bernadine Williams. The emotional wedge in her marriage grows. Memories of a recently botched execution plague her daily. As she prepares to execute another inmate, Bernadine must confront the psychological and emotional demons her job creates, ultimately connecting her to the man she is sanctioned to kill.
The “botched execution” is how this film opens, immediately forcing the viewer to confront the reality of capital punishment, as if our eyes have been strapped open, A Clockwork Orange-style. More harrowing than even the most gruesome of horror films is the simple reality that people are sentenced to die all over the world – and that some of these people are innocent.
The role that race plays in the incarceration systems the world over is at the heart of this film. African Americans are incarcerated at more than 5 times the rate of whites (US) in the States. The battle played out is not between Bernadine Williams (the Black woman who works as the prison’s warden, played to heart-wrenching perfection by Afre Woodard) and Anthony Woods (the Black man who may or may not be innocent, in show-stealing performance from Aldis Hodge), but fought by people who must play by the rules within a system in which no one can win. Chukwu said that she hopes this film will “force audiences to connect to the humanities that exist between prison walls,” something she exceeds in. I defy you to watch Hodge’s face with anything but complete and total empathy.
There are times during the film – for example, when quoting the Ralph Ellison novel, Invisible Man – that Clemency risks becoming a little heavy-handed. However, the context of the quotation (“I am invisible, understand, because people refuse to see me”) begs the question – if we are not heavy-handed with this message of systematic racial inequality, will anything ever change?
An affecting conversation takes place between the accused Anthony Woods and a past lover, Evette Wilkinson (Danielle Brooks) days before his execution. “When you die, your name will live on for lifetimes,” she says to him through the glass, down the telephone. In a film that is truly difficult and heart-breaking to watch, perhaps the most disturbing thing are the constant comparisons we can make to daily life, and the awful responsibility of the many, many names we must remember.
You can watch on www.clemencyfilm.co.uk from 17th July, with the option to donate half of the £9.99 fee to a charity of your choice (including the Death Penalty Project, BLM charities and several independent cinemas).
Birds’ Eye View believe in the power of film for positive change: for building a heartier, happier, smarter, kinder world. We believe in challenging the status quo in film, and strive to seek out the female perspective in cinema. To find out more, visit https://www.birds-eye-view.co.uk/