Producers: Bronwyn Cornelius, Julian Cautherley, Peter Wong and Timur Bekbosunov   Director:  Chinonye Chukwu   Screenplay: Chinonye Chukwu   Cast: Alfre Woodard, Aldis Hodge, Richard Schiff, Wendell Pierce, Richard Gunn, Danielle Brooks, Michael O’Neill, Vernee Watson, Dennis Haskins, LaMonica Garrett and Michelle C. Bonilla  Distributor:  NEON

Grade:  B+

The more avid proponents of capital punishment will sometimes emphasize their point of view by saying that they’d be happy to pull the switch (or, given today’s preferred method of execution, inject the needle) themselves, but even they might give pause after watching Chinonye Chukwu’s sober yet scathing portrait of the toll the process of implementing a death sentence takes on those who are part of the system as they deal with convicts on death row, their supporters, and the victims’ survivors (along with the protestors constantly shouting their objections outside).  “Clemency” is an exercise in misery on all sides, and though it’s occasionally heavy-handed in making its points (a hint of Stanley Kramer periodically intrudes), overall it’s a powerful piece of work.

The chief protagonist is Bernadine Williams (a superb Alfre Woodard), the warden of a prison where executions are performed.  She has already presided over a dozen of them, and though she tries, aided by her stoic deputy Morgan (Richard Gunn), to remain businesslike, the traumatic effect on her is palpable, especially when the most recent of them goes terribly wrong, with the inmate (Alex Castillo) going into paroxysms of pain as the sedatives fail to function properly. 

It’s no wonder that Bernadine’s marriage to schoolteacher Jonathan (Wendell Pierce) is under severe strain, or that she feels the need to unwind with Morgan at a bar on the way home, on occasion indulging too much.

To add to her personal turmoil, she is faced with preparing yet another execution, that of Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodges), a black man convicted fifteen years earlier of killing a policeman in a convenience-store holdup.  On the one hand, his lawyer Marty Lumetta (Richard Schiff), himself a veteran death penalty attorney whose frustration about working on such virtually hopeless cases is prompting him to consider retirement, is asking for Bernadine’s help in mounting his appeal to the governor.  On the other, the dead cop’s parents (Dennis Haskins and Vernee Watson-Johnson) are pressuring her to break protocol by awarding them an additional witness chair at the execution.  The sense of her being pulled in opposite directions while maintaining bureaucratic neutrality is etched on Woodard’s face.

Nor does “Clemency” ignore the anguish Woods is going through.  In Hodge’s finely-judged performance, he rouses himself from his mute resignation only when in conference with Marty, though when informed that his appeal has been denied he tries to kill himself, insisting that he wants to decide when he dies.  It’s not until late in the film that he reveals himself more fully when Evette (the excellent Danielle Brooks), an old girlfriend, visits not so much to apologize for her earlier reluctance to stand beside him, but to explain her reasons for not doing so.

That episode is only one of the potent moments the film offers; others include Bernadine’s interactions with Jonathan and Thomas; with a guard (LaMonica Garrett) who, in the end, is unable to go through with his role in Woods’s execution; and with the prison chaplain (Michael O’Neill), who offers words of comfort but is also at point of retirement, unable to continue in this particular clerical role.  The ending of the film will offer no relief to audiences who might be longing for some, lingering on Bernadine’s sad face as she does her sworn duty once more.  The overall mournful tone is accentuated by the work of the craftspeople behind the camera—production designer Margaux Rust, cinematographer Eric Branco, editor Phyllis Hausen and composer Kathryn Bostic.

“Clemency” makes a bracing counterpoint to another recent film, “Just Mercy,” about an idealistic young lawyer saving a wrongly-convicted death-row inmate in segregationist Alabama.  Based on an actual case, that film rejoices in the ultimate vindication of the justice system even in the most difficult of circumstances.  Chukwu, on the other hand, portrays the system as it usually operates, not cynically but realistically.  In “Just Mercy,” it’s clear that the convict played by Jamie Foxx has been railroaded; here it’s not revealed whether Anthony Woods is guilty or not, and what’s at stake is whether—whatever the fact on that score—it’s truly just for the state to take his life as retribution.

It’s a question “Clemency” raises in a very compelling way.