Clemency

Alfre Woodard and Alex Castillo appear in Clemency, a film by Chinonye Chokwu, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.

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There is a very particular to-the-bone chill when one steps inside a maximum-security prison. My profession has often taken me inside walls of “max,” and while it can certainly be argued to be psychosomatic, I assure you that my body’s temperature drops precipitously when a maximum security gate CLANGS! behind me. Now, it’s quite probable that thermostats are dialed down on purpose—most states don’t require correctional facilities to regulate their temperatures—but that distinctly cold jolt is most certainly triggered by dread and the specter of death.

Which brings me to Clemency, a prison drama unlike any other. I’ve lost count of how many prison-themed films I’ve witnessed, but Clemency was the first to trigger that same very real frigidity. No, it wasn’t the air conditioning inside the theater; indeed, it was the truly visceral experience of seeing Clemency that prompted me to reach for a sweater (that was never really there since the screening was during last September’s rather warm Toronto International Film Festival). When the film was over, I eventually shook off the chill, but I still can’t entirely shake Clemency.

You may not need a sweater (though the odds are better that you’ll have one, given that the film opens in Boise at The Flicks on Friday, Jan. 31), but it’s a fair bet that you too may be shaken to the core, particularly in Clemency‘s agonizing early minutes. That’s where we first meet Bernadine Williams (an unforgettable Alfre Woodard), sizing up a cross-like gurney to which an inmate will be strapped for lethal injection. As a chemical cocktail begins to coarse through his veins toward his heart, the inmate groans out the words of The Lord’s Prayer, but his words protract into cries and, ultimately, screams, eventually drowning out the “feep” of a heart monitor that continues to indicate that the inmate is still alive, long after his death was anticipated. Something goes horribly wrong (as if judicial murder wasn’t horrible enough); and the botching of the procedure sends Williams, warden of an unnamed maximum-security prison, into a emotional and professional spiral.

“I really wanted to force audiences to, in real-time, sit with the same emotional moment of the characters,” Writer/Director Chinonye Chukwu told me at TIFF. “It was ultimately important to allow the audience to experience that same emotional evolution as the characters.”

Clemency‘s premiere was the destination of an odyssey, several years in the making for Chukwu, a Nigerian-born, Alaskan-raised former film production professor at Wright State University.

“I put so much of my soul into the making of this movie for so many years,” said Chukwu, beaming from a thunderous ovation from the TIFF premiere audience. “From the moment after Troy Davis was executed, years ago, I wondered what it must be like for the people whose very livelihoods are tied to taking a human life.”

Chukwu was referring to Troy Davis, convicted of the murder of a Savannah, Georgia, police officer. But Davis maintained his innocence; and no less than Pope Benedict, former President Jimmy Carter and former FBI director William Sessions sent pleas to the courts, asking that Davis be granted a new trial. Nearly one million people signed petitions to the State of Georgia, begging for his clemency, but on Sept. 21, 2011, Davis was put to death by lethal injection.

“I knew at that moment that I wanted to explore the psychological layers of a prison’s staff in the moments leading up to an execution, particularly a warden,” said Chukwu.

Beginning in 2013, Chukwu began her research on what would become her screenplay of Clemency—she volunteered on the defense team in a clemency case, she shot real-life testimonies that would be used in actual clemency hearings and in 2016, she founded the Pens to Pictures project, a film program for female inmates in Ohio.

Chukwu’s advocacy and tireless research are revealed in her film’s attention to detail. One stark example is a scene in which Warden Williams (Woodard) explains to another death row inmate (her 13th as an administrator) about how his execution will occur. She specifically uses the word “procedure” rather than “execution,’ and never uses the words “dead” or “death.” Having visited more than one death row, and having covered too many executions, I can attest to the fact that wardens and corrections officers are very specific with their words. It is a deliberate detachment from what is about to happen. It is always a matter of “protocol” rather than “event.” To that end, it is a deliberate dehumanization of ending someone’s life.

Sad to say, the extraordinary achievements of Chukwu and Woodard were unforgivably denied any possible Oscar recognition by the Motion Picture Academy, though both are nominees and strong contenders for Independent Spirit Awards. No matter what your preconceived thoughts are on putting prisoners to death, Clemency is a must-see. Yes, it is a direct response to state-sanctioned capital punishment. But more importantly, and for Idaho in particular, Clemency casts an unavoidable shadow on the often cruel, and always unusual, practice of state-ordered death by lethal injection.

Opens Friday, Jan. 31,

at The Flicks

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