Clemency Explores the Toll of Making a Living From Death

A new film follows a prison warden who struggles with the harrowing weight of overseeing executions.

A still from "Clemency" showing Alfre Woodward
The implication that the scourge of capital punishment erodes humanity well outside the execution chamber is reinforced throughout the film. (NEON)

In the agonizing early minutes of Clemency, a new film from the writer-director Chinonye Chukwu, the prison warden Bernadine Williams is confronted with an unexpected question while she supervises a death-row execution: When a mundane atrocity goes awry, does the horror lie only in its divergence from standard procedure? Bernadine (played by Alfre Woodard) is overseeing her 12th execution, a harrowing scene: After the terror-stricken inmate, Victor Jimenez (Alex Castillo), is strapped to a gurney, medical staff struggle repeatedly to find a suitable vein for the lethal injection. Victor’s mother cries on the other side of the viewing glass. He recites the Lord’s Prayer through tears. And then, as the chemicals enter his body, he begins to seize. Blood spurts. Bernadine shields the scene from horrified onlookers, aghast at the apparent miscalculation.

Though she maintains her composure in front of her staff, Bernadine leaves the botched execution rattled. As Clemency unfolds, she grows unable to look away from the routine cruelty of her post. Woodard, who also co-produced the film, plays Bernadine with tremendous restraint. Her face threatens to crack under the dual pressures of enacting quotidian violence and suppressing her own emotions afterward; her back is an unyielding plane. Another condemned inmate, Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge), witnesses Bernadine’s slow unraveling as she prepares for his execution, her 13th. Clemency connects the pair to each other, and to the people around them, to wrenching effect. The implication—that the scourge of capital punishment erodes humanity well outside the execution chamber—is reinforced throughout the film.

The film, Chukwu’s second feature and the Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner, was inspired by a real-life case: the execution of Troy Anthony Davis at 11:08 p.m. on September 21, 2011. Though Davis’s guilt in the killing of an off-duty police officer had been in doubt, the lethal injection was administered four hours after the U.S. Supreme Court denied a stay in his case. It was his fourth assigned execution date. By then, the case had attracted national attention, inspiring widespread support for Davis. Chukwu, a film professor, was deeply affected by the outpouring and surprised by some of the people who voiced their discontent with the state’s decision. “The morning after is when I really thought about the handful of wardens, retired wardens, and directors of corrections who had been part of the protests against the execution,” she said when we spoke in New York recently. “These were wardens who had overseen, collectively, hundreds of executions, and so I just thought, What must it be like for your livelihood to be tied to the taking of human life?

Clemency poses such weighty questions. But Chukwu didn’t always know how to begin translating them to the screen. To conduct the research that would later inform the movie, she moved from New York to Ohio, a death-penalty state. There, while continuing to teach film, Chukwu began volunteering in prisons and advocating on clemency cases involving incarcerated women. “I knew I needed to do a deep dive in order to tell this story authentically … and I just decided that one of the ways for me to tell this story with as much integrity as possible is to commit my life to the very people whom I’m representing,” she said. One of the women whose cases Chukwu worked on during that time was Tyra Patterson. A black Ohioan who had been convicted for a murder she said she didn’t commit, Patterson was released from prison last year after serving 23 years. Like Davis’s, the trial that decided Patterson’s fate for those decades was riddled with irregularities.

Chukwu also interviewed prison wardens, corrections officers, and parole-board members. Woodard, meanwhile, had only cursory knowledge of prisons, from visiting an incarcerated friend once and having performed in For Colored Girls at the Sybil Brand Institute, a now-defunct Los Angeles women’s prison, in the ’70s. So to prepare her to play Bernadine, Chukwu took Woodward, an Oklahoma native, to prisons across Ohio. “What you do when you don’t know something is you go and you listen, and you just find the person. You connect person to person,” Woodard told me of the experience, which she said felt further away from home than work she’d done overseas. “You don’t ask them, What’s it like being on death row? What’s it like pulling that trigger? You go and you observe them … What you’re really doing is modeling, the way a child models adults around them. You get their essence, the way they move, how they treat others, the protocol, the life of that environment.”

Alfre Woodard and Chinonye Chukwu on set (Paul Sarkis)

Clemency is unflinching in its depiction of the desolation of prisons. (The film’s central prison is never given a specific geographic location, which imparts a sense of universality—any death-penalty state could host this kind of turmoil.) Though inmates may be visited by family or friends, they are ultimately shrouded in isolation. Though Bernadine is married, and her deputy tries to connect with her, she, too, is unquestionably alone. “I really wanted to focus on the industrial starkness of the space, and part of the horror of the prison space, and part of the horror of the practice of capital punishment, is the mundane-ness of it and the emotional detachment,” Chukwu said of the setting. Over and over again, Clemency shows viewers just how systematically the prison’s—and Bernadine’s—violence operates. Even as she relays ghastly information, Bernadine speaks with chilling remove.

Among the most jarring scenes is one in which Bernadine explains to Anthony how exactly his execution will be carried out. Though Bernadine has been having nightmares about Victor’s execution, she lists the building blocks of Anthony’s death in dispassionate detail: gurney, injection, chosen visitor. The description ends with a clinical observation, a sentence that continues to widen the requisite gulf between warden and inmate: “At that point medical personnel will declare the execution complete.” Anthony cries silently as Bernadine speaks. He does not make her job easier. In the scene that follows, his actions further complicate the process. Banging his head against the wall of his cell, he rejects the state’s plan: “I say when I die!”

Chukwu plays with time and repetition throughout the film. But the effect isn’t numbing. Rather, Chukwu creates a kind of torturous suspension. “You always hear about the clock … Everything has to be done when it’s said it’s going to be done,” Woodard said of the prison’s inhumane adherence to schedules. “And everybody’s serving time. So what Chinonye did was to have the audience serve time as well.”

Woodard’s right—Clemency’s 113 minutes are often excruciating. The film is quiet, amplifying each sound created by the pursuit of death. “I didn’t want music to dictate how you feel,” Chukwu said of the sparse sound design. She noted later that she drew inspiration from the stillness of the filmmaker Michael Haneke’s work, as well as the long takes for which the director Béla Tarr is renowned. The negative space used in Paweł Pawlikowski’s Ida and Steve McQueen’s Hunger informed her work, too. “I knew that the framing and compositions that we do in the film had to be an extension of the emotional space that the characters were in, and the rigidity of the world,” she said of Clemency’s bleak visual language. “And it was also important to me that we see them, that we take time to see who these people are.”

The film’s tightly cropped frames bring both the inmates and the executioners into sharp, sometimes uncomfortable focus. But for Chukwu, the work of using film to highlight stories from inside and around the prison system doesn’t end with Clemency’s final takes, its Sundance prize, or even its release. While volunteering on cases in Ohio prisons, she started a program called Pens to Pictures. “I looked around and realized that most of these stories will never leave prison walls,” she said of the impetus to begin the ongoing initiative. “I’d been a film professor for over 10 years, where I have worked with young people in a very privileged space to tell their own stories. And I just thought, Well, my ability to help people tell their stories shouldn't be confined to the privileged walls of a college classroom.