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Movie review: ‘Clemency’ highlights overlooked aspect of death row

Al Alexander
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Alfre Woodard in "Clemency."

In less than a year, Aldis Hodge has devolved from rising Suffolk County assistant DA (“City on a Hill”) to falsely accused rapist (“Brian Banks”) to wrongly convicted death-row inmate (“Clemency”). He doesn’t need a better attorney; he needs a better agent.

I know it’s hard for African Americans not to get swallowed up in America’s messed-up legal system, but this is ridiculous. But it’s also a bit of a godsend because Hodge is terrific in all three roles. If I could only see him in something outside the courthouse, like say the next James Bond or a badass superhero. I suspect such roles will come to the 32-year-old hunk, but for now, let’s just enjoy watching him turn water into wine in “Clemency,” the best of his three high-profile roles from 2019.

As alleged cop-killer Anthony Woods, Hodge is riveting, digging deep to reveal a defeated man clinging to the last, fraying strands of hope. He’s been abandoned by everyone, including the girlfriend with whom he had a son he’s just now learning about - 15 years later. And his only visitor is his heart-on-his-sleeve pro-bono attorney, Marty Lumetta (Richard Schiff, outstanding). It is the latter who Woods has invested everything as the clock ticks toward his scheduled execution for a crime he sorta didn’t commit. He admittedly took part in the robbery, but he wasn’t the one who pulled the trigger. If only someone would believe him, namely the governor, whose order of clemency he’s hoping against hope to arrive at any minute.

Umm, sounds an awful lot like last week’s new release, “Just Mercy,” except Woods isn’t completely innocent. Nor are we provided any proof he didn’t do what he’s accused. Worse, this isn’t even his movie. No, that distinction belongs to Alfre Woodard as his Johnny Black-swigging warden who has deep, life-threatening troubles of her own. Like Woods, the prison system is killing her Bernadine Williams.

We meet her while she’s confidently overseeing the 12th execution of her career. She’s tough and completely in control. Then, problems arise. The medic can’t find an acceptable vein to insert the needle. He tries the arm, the foot, between the toes and finally in the groin. Through it all, the inmate writhes in pain and fear. The lethal cocktail that flows into him fails to do the job. He’s moaning and bleeding in an unbearable display before mercifully finally dying.

From the deer-in-the-headlights look on Bernadine’s face, you know this is going to do a number on her conscience. And sure enough, it triggers a downward spiral that will drive a deeper wedge between her and her flustered, ready-to-give-up husband, Jonathan (the great Wendell Pierce). It also will spur nightmares and more frequent visits to the Blue Star, the bar where she retreats each night to drown her sorrows in a different kind of lethal cocktail.

Did I mention Woodard is sensational? Well, she is in what I’d confidently say is her best work ever. And that’s saying something. Cheers, too, to her writer-director Chinonye Chukwu, who had the brilliant idea to take a look at capital punishment from the perspective of a person we’ve never encountered before: the one in charge of ending human life. Frankly, I’d never considered how these state-sanctioned murders can inspire guilt and shame in faceless bureaucrats like Bernadine.

Woodard is deft at not only humanizing Bernadine but in depicting how the barbaric process she’s in charge of is slowly eating at the soul she didn’t know she had until forced to deal with it as her 13th execution approaches. She also lets down her guard enough to start feeling actual empathy for Woods, as destroying him starts to destroy her. And the constant chants by the protesters just outside her office window only add to her agony. It’s just outstanding work, and people are taking notice, bestowing end-of-the-year honors on Woodard, including an Independent Spirit Award nomination for Best Actress.

Chukwu’s debut is likewise catching on, earning the Grand Jury prize at last year’s Sundance Film Festival and Best Picture and Best Screenplay nods from the Independent Spirits. Well-deserved, too, I’d say. But that doesn’t mean “Clemency” isn’t without problems. For one, at times it’s hard to tell whose story this is: Woods’ or Bernadine’s. Also, the movie too often gets bogged down in making overly familiar arguments against capital punishment. There’s nothing new here on that front - except if you count Bernadine.

Still, I would like to have seen an even deeper focus on how she’s coping with the kind of job you can’t leave at the office. Its fallout follows her everywhere, shattering her to the point that Jonathan rightly points out she’s no longer “whole.” I wanted to experience more of that, like does Bernadine have any friends beyond her assistant, Thomas (Richard Gunn), and if so, how do they interact with her? And where exactly does her increasing dependency on alcohol arise from? Too much of “Clemency” is on the surface, afraid to dig deeper.

Ah, but how can you resist when you’re in the capable hands of the law-firm-sounding dream team of Woodard, Hodge and Schiff? They are an unbeatable trio and as stated in those annoying attorney ads on TV, they mean business.

Al Alexander may be reached at alexandercritica@aol.com.

“Clemency”

Cast includes Alfre Woodard, Aldis Hodge, Wendell Pierce, Richard Schiff and Richard Gunn.

(R for some disturbing material, and language.)

Grade: B+