Capital punishment hurts everybody in Clemency

A Drama
Written & directed by Chinonye Chukwu

How do you comfort the mother of a man about to be executed – especially when your job is to oversee the execution? The answer, inevitably, is “not well.” The experience gets worse when the execution, by lethal injection, gets thoroughly botched and the condemned man suffers before he dies.

The first scene in Chinonye Chukwu’s masterful Clemency – the scene I described above – carries a very powerful emotional punch. So does the rest of the film. This isn’t a sermon against capital punishment, but it clearly shows us how everyone involved in “the procedure” is changed by their job.

That includes the warden, played by Alfre Woodard in a brilliant performance. Her Bernadine Williams is an emotional mess. She’s good at her job, and she sticks to the book. But the executions are eating her up inside. She drinks too much. She’s having marital problems. She has a close emotional relationship with a young man who works under her; there’s a hint that they’re relationship may be, or once was, not entirely platonic. Her husband (Wendell Pierce) struggles to get back her love – he too is suffering from the executions.

But of all the people struggling because of this system, those on death row have it unquestionably worse.

Aldis Hodge plays the next condemned man up for execution. He’s been waiting on death row for 15 years, and he’s bubbling with fear and dread. He sits in his room, looking glum. When the warden tries to talk to him, he clams up. There are drawings taped to the wall; we don’t know if he drew them or if someone sent them to him.

But when his lawyer comes to see him, he perks up. He talks openly and friendly with this one man trying to save his life. He even jokes with him. But the lawyer is looking for another way to make a living. He wants a job where his clients don’t die.

There are reasons to believe that he didn’t fire the gun; that whatever crime he committed was considerably less than murder. The film doesn’t answer the question of his guilt or innocence. Either way, he’s suffering.

Clemency forces you to care about every person on the screen. Some have done horrible things. but they all have done good things as well. Whether prisoner, guard, warden, or warden’s husband, there’s no way to be sane on death row.

Clemency opens Friday at the Embarcadero Center.