If you want to see what great acting is, watch Alfre Woodard deliver a master class in Clemency. In this shattering second feature from writer-director Chinonye Chukwu (alaskaLand) — which earlier this year made her the first black woman to win the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance — Woodard plays Bernadine Williams, an emotionally restrained prison warden who is about to oversee her twelfth execution by lethal injection. The last one, as Chukwu shows us, damn near wrecked her.
The film opens with the gut-wrenching sight of state-sanctioned murder. The paramedic can’t find a vein. The condemned man suffers convulsions. Blood spurts. His mother cries in horror behind a glass wall, until Williams draws a curtain to block her and the assembled journalists from the horror. Behind the curtain, even the prison staff is traumatized. The warden has done everything to control each step of the execution, but it takes an agonizingly long time until the prisoner’s heart monitor stops beeping. So brutal is the process, which Chukwu presents in granular detail, that you might feel as if your heart has stopped, too.
Clemency is passionately anti-capital punishment, whether the accused is innocent or not. But the film chooses to focus on those who bear witness, especially Williams. As an authority figure, she must methodically adhere to the rules. As a woman, she is hyper-alert to being judged for signs of weakness. And through Woodard’s transfixing, transcendent performance, a measure is taken of the cost exacted when compassion is by necessity eliminated from the equation.
Clemency follows Williams as she prepares to face the next inmate in line for execution. He is Anthony Woods (the brilliant Aldis Hodge), a convicted cop killer and an artist who favors drawing birds in flight. The symbolism is heavy-handed. But it’s hard to stay objective when Woods entreats his lawyer, Marty (a gruff but caring Richard Schiff), to make one more plea for his innocence. Marty accuses the warden of institutional indifference. But one look at Woodard puts the lie to that notion. Williams is coming apart, drinking alone at home when her husband (Wendell Pierce, terrific) claims she has drained all the life from their marriage.
Chukwu spent four years researching the death penalty in Ohio, where it is still practiced. She interviewed wardens and corrections officials in an attempt to understand the toll taken on people whose livelihood depends on the taking of a human life. Chukwu did not write speeches where Williams could vent about her situation; there was no need. She simply allows cinematographer Eric Branco to aim his lens at Woodard, whose ravaged face becomes a road map to what happens when a human being tries to repress all traces of empathy. As Clemency moves toward its devastating conclusion, Woodard tracks every gradation from tragic loss to possible redemption.
Woodard, who has won four Emmys out of 18 nominations, is one of the best actors on the planet. Shockingly, she has only been nominated for an Oscar once, for 1983’s Cross Creek. Did Academy voters not see her in Passion Fish, Hearts and Souls, and 12 Years a Slave, to name just a few of her triumphs? It would be a case of blatant neglect to ignore her artistry in the dramatic powerhouse that is Clemency. What Woodard can convey in a single close-up speaks volumes about who we are and who we need to be in the world. Like the movie she inhabits with every fiber of her being, Woodard is some kind of miracle.