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Sundance 2019 Film Review: “Clemency” (2019) ★★


Alfre Woodard and Alex Castillo appear in Clemencyby Chinonye Chokwu, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Courtsey of Sundance Institute | photo by Eric Branco All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or ‘Courtesy of Sundance Institute.’ Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.

Death penalty. Execution. Why is the judicial system allowed to kill legally when they prosecute for the same? We all talk about kindness and the importance of remaining humane, but when it comes to granting clemency, we somehow hesitate. Written and directed by Chinonye Chukwu, “Clemency” explores the complexity of being sanctioned to kill, the importance of fulfilling the job dutifully and, perhaps, not to get attached to someone who is about to lose their life.

Bernadine Williams is the head of a highly secured prison. After an execution that went wrong, but still managed to claim a life, it is now getting ready for execution number thirteen of Anthony, who years ago took a cop’s life. As Anthony and his lawyer try to get clemency from the governor, Bernadine struggles at home, tries to be part of her marriage and not what is eating her from the inside to take her sanity away as she begins questioning between right and wrong, why what she does is not a job but a profession.

With such a deep subject matter and the opportunity to dig deep into capital punishment, unfortunately, “Clemency” fails to convince that its intention was real and profound. For instance, warden Bernadine Williams has been carrying out death row for years, and even tells her deputy that she DOES NOT want media in her prison, and not even after Victor Jimenez dies bleeding right before her eyes, while his mother was watching her son dying in such pain. But what does she do to prevent it from happening again? Nothing. All what she does is gives permission to have an internal investigation without letting the public know the truth.

Or for instance, Bernadine, as the head of prison, is willing to get into a car completely drunk to drive home if not for her deputy who insisted to give her a ride instead. That action alone is questionable for someone who most likely has inmates sitting in prison for the same offense. Marty, Anthony’s lawyer, announces that it is his last case and he is willing to retire. He’s getting upset every time when his clients are getting executed, but as you watch throughout the film, no wonder why he never succeeded at his goodwill mission. We not only see him active, he goes back and forth with no real goal and only talk, which for a film like this is almost a crime.

In conclusion, “Clemency” falls short of delivering its point. There are a lot of things not adding up. We know that Bernadine is too attached to Anthony, however, she literally does nothing to help him nor is transparent. She is too much into doing her job as it’s written in a book and literally wastes her emotions on things which she does nothing to change. Despite Alfre Woodard’s being one of the most powerful I’ve seen at the festival, it won’t help to justify the actions of her character, hence the tears you will be seeing coming down from her eyes won’t be so believable despite Woodard’s attempt to humanize her.

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