The late Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia, a staunch proponent of capital punishment, once famously said that there had not been, “a single case—not one—in which it is clear that a person was executed for a crime he did not commit.” That firebrand assertion implies that if it were ever proven that an innocent man had been put to death, it would call the entire practice of the death penalty into question. Since then, the issue has become a cause célèbre for Hollywood, highlighting through film the very cases Scalia purported not to exist. The campaign was ramped up in 2019, with three major releases dealing with the issue, where some are exonerated and others executed, but all involved were almost certainly innocent.
The latest is Clemency, written and directed by Chinonye Chukwu, which won the Dramatic Grand Jury Prize at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, making Chukwu the first black woman to earn the honor. Loosely based on the case of Troy Davis, who was executed in 2011 despite maintaining his innocence the entire time, the film is yet another case study in how justice is unequally dispensed. However, while the other films dealing with capital punishment focused squarely on the convicts and the efforts of outsiders to save them, this film takes a more insightful angle, showing the effects that the death penalty has for everyone else involved, not just the condemned, and bringing light to some of the major problems with the system.
Oscar nominee Alfre Woodard (Cross Creek) stars as Bernadine Williams, the warden of a prison that executes inmates. The film opens with the botched execution of one Victor Jimenez (Alex Castillo). The stark, graphic nature of the lethal injection highlights one of the more recent criticisms of the death penalty, that this preferred method of quiet execution may not actually be all that humane. While Victor doesn’t struggle, it takes several painful attempts for the technician to find a vein for the fatal drugs to enter his system, and once they do, they don’t act properly, leaving Victor to gasp, convulse, and scream in his final moments rather than pass peacefully.
The experience is traumatic for Bernadine, who has continuous nightmares about it well after the fact. The memories interfere with her professional and personal life, straining work relationships as well as her marriage, as her English teacher husband Jonathan (Wendell Pierce, who has a nice symbolic scene reading Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” to his class) wants them both to retire soon, not just for their own happiness, but because he morally objects to the morbid nature of her work.
Before you know it, the next victim comes up on Bernadine’s docket, Anthony Woods, played by Aldis Hodge (Brian Banks). Based on Davis, he was convicted of killing a police officer and quickly sentenced to death. News reports during the film reveal his initial crime was a botched armed robbery, and he himself didn’t pull the trigger that killed the victim. Nevertheless, he was condemned, and multiple levels of appeals for new trials and a merciful commutation of his sentence have been denied. Woodard and Hodge put in painful efforts as they must go through the motions and logistics of planning someone’s death while still maintaining hope and/or pretending it’s all in the normal course of a job. Even Woods’ attorney (Richard Schiff), tries to keep a positive outlook, but he barely hides that it’s a lost cause.
All of this serves to pinpoint some of the very core issues with capital punishment. One, the moment someone is put on death row, the burden of proof shifts to them to prove their innocence beyond reasonable doubt, and even when they do, it’s just easier to say no and kill them. Two, Woods – and Davis by extension – are case studies where death penalty states just seem to get a hard-on for state-sponsored homicide. Woods committed a crime of robbery and admitted to it, but maintained his innocence when it came to the killing of the officer. Exposition reveals that there’s no solid evidence he pulled the trigger, but because he was involved in the crime at all and a cop died, that was enough to forfeit this man’s life. This isn’t eye for an eye, it’s eye for a fingernail. Three, dedicated lawyers get driven out of the profession because they become so emotionally drained from watching their clients die, to the point that there just aren’t enough good defenders out there anymore. And finally, as we saw with Victor Jimenez in the opening, no matter what lengths states go to, there’s no guarantee of a “humane” execution, which is how they maintain their legality in the face of the Constitutional ban on “cruel and unusual” punishment.
Where the film best succeeds, apart from the superlative performances, is in the fact that all these points are put across without falling into the usual patterns in these types of films. Woods’ overall guilt is never in question. He admits to at least one crime, and he’s willing to pay a debt to society (and he’s already been in prison 15 years while his appeals process has played out). He simply doesn’t want to pay with his life. In a devastatingly simple line, Schiff points out to Woodard that in his line of work, winning means only that your client doesn’t die. Also, any racial component this story might have had just doesn’t apply, as both Woods and Bernadine are black, and there’s no self-righteous racist cop or judge foisting the death penalty upon us. All of that stuff already happened years ago off screen, if it happened at all. All that matters for this story is if there’s going to be a stay or some last-minute clemency (hence the title), and if there’s not, Bernadine simply has to go about her business and do her job, no matter how much it wears on her.
One of the best scenes in the film is a “practice run” for Woods’ execution. One of the guards, played by LaMonica Garrett (The Monitor in CW’s DC Universe shows) thinks he’s fine, but after witnessing Victor’s botched death, he’s too traumatized to go through with even a rehearsal for another injection. The moment he freezes is palpable, because when you’ve routinely killed over a dozen people without blinking only to see the last one suffer horribly, it stays with you whether you think you’re over it or not.
That’s the true strength of the film. Wherever you stand on the issue, capital punishment is for the most part an “out of sight, out of mind” proposition. This film goes above and beyond the conventions of a typical story on this front, showing how it affects the people who day after day have to survive this process. They have to deal with it long after it’s over, and through watching the film, so do you, and that brings light to one of society’s darkest issues in a surprisingly innovative way.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What other social and political issues would you like to see in movies? Could you allow yourself to be strapped to the gurney in an execution chamber, even for a rehearsal? Let me know!
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