Desolation Row

Clemency takes us where we don't want to go, for our own good.

A quick note on Chinonye Chukwu’s Clemency, the second death-row drama this month (after Just Mercy). Both movies feature a strong African-American point of view on the subjects of incarceration and the death penalty, and the preponderance of Black Americans facing both. Just Mercy featured standout performances by Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx as attorney and client, but Clemency doubles down on the moral and emotional implications in the persons of Bernadine Williams, a prison warden (Alfre Woodard, in a remarkable role), and a death-row inmate named Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge).

Warden Williams suffers inside for every prisoner who gets strapped into the bizarre lethal injection gurney. Despite her outward composure — she wears an expression of commingled grief and revulsion on her face for most of the film’s running time — Williams is clearly sliding into a treacherous mental state. Her job is killing her soul, and her husband Jonathan (Wendell Pierce) seems unable to do anything but sympathize helplessly. Just to graphically inform us what’s at stake, the opening scene shows, in patient detail, the process of execution by injection. It’s a sight, and sound, you won’t soon forget.

If we have any complaint, it’s that writer-director Chukwu’s scenario tends to be a one-note oratorio of sadness, with very little cool breeze blowing though to moderate the gloom. Perfectly appropriate to the subject but hard on us, the proxy witnesses. But maybe that’s the point.


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