'Clemency' Movie Still

With the 92nd Academy Awards this past weekend, it could have been very easy to overlook the Film Independent Spirit Awards, which occurred Saturday night. 

The Spirit Awards focus solely on independent films made mostly outside of the Hollywood studio system. They provide a necessary highlight to films that might not be getting the same traction as larger films such as “1917” or “Joker.” This year, the Spirit Awards nominated five films for their Best Feature award. Though the award was ultimately given to “The Farewell,” one of the other nominees, “Clemency” opens at the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center this weekend.

“Clemency” is directed by Nigerian-American filmmaker Chinonye Chukwu, and it stars Alfre Woodard as Bernadine Williams, the warden of a death row prison. The film is an examination of the psychological effects that come from being in charge of executing prisoners.

It explores how Williams struggles when she disagrees with the decision to execute someone, but it’s her job to ensure it happens. The demons that come with her work torment her night and day. She often has trouble sleeping at night, difficulty connecting to her husband and frequently fails to find joy in her life.

I was not prepared for the heavy, emotional and truly breathtaking film that “Clemency” is. 

The core plot of the film is based around Anthony Woods, played by Aldis Hodge, who has been sentenced to death for shooting and killing a cop. Woods maintains that he is innocent; he says that he wasn’t the one who pulled the trigger that killed the officer, and there is plenty of evidence to support his claims. Nonetheless, he was sentenced.

After seeing the nationwide discussion Woods’ sentencing caused, Williams begins to doubt that executing him is the right decision. At the same time, she feels it is not her position to determine the right action, and she must perform the job assigned to her. With each prisoner put to death, a bit more of her soul seems to be chipped away, until she ultimately feels like a monotonous shell. 

The credit for this film’s effectiveness can be almost entirely attributed to Chukwu’s directing and writing. The film often juggles several, very deep themes at one time, and yet none of them water down the others. The film is just as much an examination of what it means to be happy as it is a look at mortality and what determines a government’s right to take the life of a criminal. Chukwu is able to balance all of these very complicated subjects brilliantly, developing the film’s characters and depicting them as real people with genuine emotions.

Backed by stellar performances across the board, every single character in this film has his or her own well-developed motivations and feelings about executions and the morality of them. Whether it be Williams, Woods or anyone else, each character is excellently written and examined. They each bring an entirely new perspective to the table, which allows “Clemency” to start a genuine and important conversation about the U.S. criminal justice system.

“Clemency” is the type of film that you only ever watch once, but the resonance of its material never leaves you. It can be difficult to watch at times, but its story and themes are so powerful that you can’t help but be moved.

It’s not a film that has been garnering the same massive acclaim as the winners from the Oscars this Sunday, but it’s one that is just as important. It’s a phenomenal and timely exploration of differing philosophies and the importance of having conversations about uncomfortable topics.