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“I’m alone, and nobody can fix it.” So prison warden Bernadine Williams describes carrying out executions. But she could be speaking for every character in Clemency, a film from writer/director Chinonye Chukwu. Loneliness and despair escort all on the walk toward death, Chukwu seems to say.
The film follows Williams (Alfre Woodard) as she prepares for the lethal injection of Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge). Years running death row have taken their toll. Williams spends many nights at a bar, and her husband (the always excellent Wendell Pierce) threatens separation. Adding to her unease are doubts that Woods is guilty.
Clemency (rated R for some disturbing material and eight expletives) won the 2019 Sundance Grand Jury Prize for drama. Chukwu seems uninterested in moving the needle in the debate on capital punishment. In Clemency, life is as bleak as the dark hues that swallow the scenes in the prison, bar, and Williams’ home. Chukwu’s characters can only offer weak platitudes. Even the priest doesn’t see the Light: He quotes Romans 8:38-39 but omits “which is in Jesus Christ our Lord.” Despair in life and death will prevail unless we believe that God sent His Son to fix it.