Few movie protagonists stay in your thoughts as hauntingly as Bernadine Williams, the warden, magnificently played by Alfre Woodard, who presides over a men’s prison and its death-penalty apparatus in “Clemency.”
Written and directed by Chinonye Chukwu (“Alaskaland”), the modestly scaled but compelling drama condemns the death penalty through a story about the emotional toll of capital punishment not only on those waiting to die, but on those who administer their execution.
Bernadine maintains absolute control over the prison she manages, and she follows the rules unwaveringly. She treats the facility’s death-row inmates, who tend to be nonwhite and have received a bad deal, emotionlessly but as decently as the law allows. The problem is the barbaric nature of what the law ordains.
In the death chamber, where lethal injections are carried out, Bernadine makes sure that protocol is followed. When all is in order, she gives the go-ahead gesture. An inmate dies when she nods her head.
It’s a job she can’t perform efficiently unless she walls off all emotion.
Two executions bring about the crisis of conscience that was bound to occur in her someday.
The first is a terribly botched “procedure.” Blood spurts. The inmate’s body convulses. Bernadine’s staff and those witnessing the event, including the inmate’s mother, watch in horror.
The second case, which dominates the plot, is that of Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge), an inmate who may be innocent. Anthony’s lawyer (Richard Schiff), a longtime anti-death-penalty crusader, is working hard, but clemency hasn’t been granted. Time is running out.
While Bernadine doesn’t overtly express it, her job has begun to affect her. She can’t sleep. Her husband (Wendell Pierce) tells her she’s become an “empty shell.”
There’s a cliched feel to some of these elements, like Bernadine’s nightmares about the botched execution. Anthony’s possible innocence, meanwhile, overshadows the film’s underlying message: The death penalty is wrong for anyone. All of the men on death row are human beings and should be treated as such.
Fortunately, however, Chukwu’s character-driven storytelling, the film’s claustrophobic and shadowy look and tone, and the intense focus Chukwu places on Bernadine have resulted in a powerful movie that, with Woodard aboard, features one of the past year’s most unforgettable protagonists.
Woodard, whose subtlety proves superbly effective in the numerous close-ups Chukwu wisely grants her, conveys something almost pathological in Bernadine’s impassiveness. When cracks form in Bernadine’s interior walls, and emotion seeps through, her humanity fascinates.
While Chukwu reaps suspense from the ticking-clock element, she never allows plot to upstage character.
In one particularly affecting scene, Bernadine matter-of-factly details to Anthony, who is movingly portrayed by Hodge, what will happen to him before, during, and after the execution. Anthony silently cries, and Bernadine, despite her impassive countenance, appears to feel for him. As a warden whose nod has served as a green light for a dozen executions, with Anthony likely to become her 13th, Bernadine, too, needs clemency.
Impressive among the supporting cast are Schiff as Anthony’s weary attorney, Winchell as Bernadine’s concerned husband and Danielle Brooks in a small but commanding appearance as Anthony’s estranged girlfriend.
Directors as diverse as Tim Robbins, Claude Chabrol, Lars von Trier and Werner Herzog have made films about the death penalty, each with a distinct focus, and Chukwu’s drama, interested in the emotional impact of killing people for a living, merits a place in the catalog.
Unlike Bernadine Williams, who supervises the administering of executions, Bryan Stevenson, the real-life attorney played by Michael B. Jordan in Destin Daniel Cretton’s “Just Mercy,” helps prison inmates escape death row. While less emotionally powerful, deep down, than Chukwu’s intimate drama, Cretton’s movie contains an inspiring story and presents it solidly.
Rather like “Dark Waters,” the film is a crusading-lawyer drama with a social message, which, in this case, echoing “Clemency,” involves the inhumanity of the death penalty. The screenplay, written by Cretton and Andrew Lanham, is based on the memoir by Stevenson, the Harvard-educated African-American attorney who, rejecting lucrative job offers, went to Alabama to defend convicts who were innocent or had received shoddy legal representation.
The story focuses on an early and seemingly hopeless case in Stevenson’s career. The defendant, Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), also known as Johnny D, was an African-American pulpwood worker who, in the 1980s, was falsely convicted of murdering an 18-year-old white woman in Monroeville, Alabama. (It’s the town where Harper Lee wrote “To Kill a Mockingbird,” townsfolk tell visitors eagerly.)
Despite the dubiousness of the testimony used to convict McMillian, the judge sentenced him to die in the electric chair.
We witness McMillian’s arrest by a racist sheriff, and by the time Stevenson visits him, McMillian, tired of dealing with ineffectual lawyers, views him as a naive northerner clueless to the way things get done in Alabama. “You’re guilty from the moment you’re born,” McMillian says, describing being black and poor there.
Procedural style, Stevenson and local social-justice advocate Eva Ansley (Brie Larson) dig into McMillian’s case and discover substantial evidence indicating McMillian’s innocence.
A major obstacle in Stevenson’s attempt to get McMillian a retrial is new district attorney Tommy Chapman (Rafe Spall), who, behind his friendly facade, appears willing to let an innocent man die.
Also difficult to convince is Ralph Myers (Tim Blake Nelson), the slippery, fidgety felon whose false, police-coerced testimony got McMillian convicted. Will he recant his lies?
Stevenson’s perseverance pays off. McMillian becomes the first man ever freed from Alabama’s death row.
Containing big speeches, a courtroom outburst, a racist guard, a justice-obstructing prosecutor and a tear-jerking climax, the film is a formulaic affair.
Stevenson, meanwhile, comes across as flawless, defying credibility; there’s little insight into his inner character.
Still, Cretton’s accomplished direction makes this real-life David and Goliath story affecting.
The film additionally calls attention to the ingrained racism and rampant corruption in the justice system.
While Jordan satisfies as Stevenson, whose heroism he and Cretton somewhat understate, the death-row characters account for the movie’s richest moments.
Foxx’s McMillian is a moving portrait of a man who has accepted death as his fate.
Especially memorable are scenes featuring the bond between McMillian and two fellow fact-inspired inmates: PTSD-damaged war vet Herbert Richardson (Rob Morgan), who admits his guilt but, as Stevenson tries to convince him, doesn’t deserve to die; and Anthony Ray Hinton (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), an innocent man whose real-life self, like McMillian, Stevenson helped free.
Larson, who appeared in Cretton’s “Short Term 12” and “The Glass Castle,” is uninterestingly used, sadly, while Nelson, colorfully character-acting, nearly steals the show.
Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx, Brie Larsen, and Rob Morgan
Written by:Destin Daniel Cretton, Andrew Lanham
Directed by: Destin Daniel Cretton
Running time: 2 hours, 16 minutes