• Teresa Xie


My interest in Clemency stems from a criminology class that I took in college last year called “Death Penalty, Theory and Practice,” where we spent the whole semester learning about the history of capital punishment, death penalty cases, and public opinion surrounding this outdated institution. My personal takeaway from the class was that the death penalty should not exist, as we read texts that supported the death penalty for its retributive effects, and those that opposed the death penalty under belief that the government does not have the moral agency to control the end of one’s life. My friend who watched this film with me is currently enrolled in this same class, and as we were watching she said, “This film has swayed me against the death penalty more so than a semester worth of theory ever would.”

Directed by Chinonye Chukwu, Clemency centers around an African American warden named Bernadine (Alfre Woodard), who guards and keeps order in her prison. She never fails to show up in a crisp suit, keeping composure in an institution that expects her to project unquestionable authority and expertise. At work, she is referred to as “Warden,” and at home, she is called “Bernadine.” Throughout the film, we get in-depth narratives of her personal and work life, both of which she struggles deeply with, as her wholeness plunges deeper and deeper into a dark hole, making her a shell of the human that she once was. As Bernadine navigates overseeing a botched execution and an inmate who disputably should not be on death row, she becomes engulfed in nauseating guilt and powerlessness in her position.

The film opens with a painfully detailed, botched lethal injection, where an inmate’s last moments are defined by great suffering. His whole body enters into shock and paralysis, as the injection does not fully enter his bloodstream. Amongst those who are witnessing the inmate’s botched execution is his mother, who cries and sends helpless prayers for her son behind a glass window. She, too, is helpless. The execution rattles Bernadine, who seems rather unfazed up until this point. Giving the viewer a bird’s eye view of the execution, we see the complete and total emotion of someone literally lying on their deathbed. It is harrowing to watch, as we instinctively picture ourselves in the same position, our limbs strapped down onto a white plank.

Although the film largely revolves around Bernadine’s struggle to come to terms with her profession and role in overseeing government supervised deaths, it also highlights the story of Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge), an inmate on death-row waiting for the possibility of clemency. He has been put on death row for the murder of a cop, although protests and witnesses suggest that his sentence was wrongly decided. Throughout the film, the clock slowly ticks on Anthony’s life, as each day becomes a drawn-out race against time to find the results of his most recent appeal. Although some days are more jarring than others, Anthony still manages to maintain hope as his lawyer continues to fight for him, as he has done for the last seven years. He is tired; Anthony is too. Anthony reaches several breaking points, between building hope and losing it -- between keeping his life and ending it against his own will.

I’m not sure how anyone could watch Clemency and come out of the film supporting the death penalty. The most consistently cited reason for supporting the death penalty is retribution, or the long-held belief that a punishment of equal pain should be inflicted on someone who has committed a wrongful act. When we see the death penalty in headlines, we are often removed from the situation: it is a victim against a perpetrator. However, as we know, the criminal justice system regularly fails to provide justice, as it capitalizes off of those in the least privileged positions of society. When it comes to the death penalty, someone’s life is on a line regulated by a system meant to work against them. By homing in on Andrew Wood’s appeal, Clemency aims to humanize a man who lives every day on death row, where the most control he has over his life is what his last meal should be.

Visually, Clemency excels as portraying the prison that Bernadine guards as an animalistic cage. It is meant to feel claustrophobic and inhumane. Although Bernadine is the cage’s keeper, she is internally and externally trapped in this system as well. Her dreams are nightmarish spinoffs of her reality, where she sees herself on death row and even dreads Anthony Woods’ pertinent execution, waking up in a sweat. The death penalty is not just a proxy instilled in our criminal justice system -- it is a function that affects the prisoner, the warden, the families, and society’s concept of what “justice” really means.

Clemency is a painfully striking film, as the narrative largely elongates the predetermined fate of inmates on death row. The plot of the film lies outside of any character’s control, as systematic forces drive every pivot point, from the appeal to the execution process. Woodard’s performance as a warden projects an icy coldness that can only be radiated from someone who believes it is easier to be numb than to feel. Meanwhile, Anthony’s silence cuts deep like sharp glass, echoing his vision of a life he never had as he sits in a cage meant to swallow him whole. Clemency is unapologetic in his message, as it should be, allowing even the most removed audiences to reconsider the institution of capital punishment.

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